Oral statement to Parliament

Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture

It is truly an honour to give this, the third Gareth Roberts memorial lecture. Sir Gareth looms large over much of what I’ll be discussing…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon David Willetts

It is truly an honour to give this, the third Gareth Roberts memorial lecture.

Sir Gareth looms large over much of what I’ll be discussing this evening, because his interest were so wide-ranging. He worked in academia and in industry - moving easily between the two. He was a pioneer in molecular electronics - a field really starting to bloom - and an early advocate of the potential importance of silicon chips. He was a wonderful public broadcaster; an excellent vice-chancellor of Sheffield University and prominent chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. The Dearing report in 1997 owed much to Gareth and that Committee - as do the current tranche of HE reforms, with their emphasis on the importance of high-quality undergraduate teaching and social mobility.

Then, in 2002, Gareth’s own report, SET for Success, led to an increase in the stipend of research students and accelerated efforts to recruit and retain science teachers. “Roberts Money”, meanwhile, became the shorthand for funding career development and transferable skills for postgraduates. The publications, the patents, the fellowships and presidencies: he enjoyed a life of extraordinary accomplishment.

Above all, Gareth Roberts had an incalculable impact on UK science - and that’s the United Kingdom in the fullest sense, through posts at Bangor, Coleraine, Durham and Oxford - as well as at Sheffield. And given his clear concern for the health and diversity of our research base, I’m sure he would have been pleased by the findings of the latest biennial report which compares its performance to those of our competitors.

Strength of research base

Today’s report for my Department by Elsevier assesses not just the quantity and quality of publications but the value of international collaborations and knowledge transferred through the mobility of academics. Overall the news is good - very good in fact. While the UK has far fewer researchers than countries such as the US and China, it remains far more efficient in terms of output per researcher. We really punch above our weight.

In 2010, the UK was responsible - globally - for three percent of gross expenditure on R&D; four per cent of researchers; six per cent of all articles; nine per cent of all usage; 11 per cent of citations and 14 per cent of the most cited articles.

It’s also significant that the UK’s success on an increasingly competitive global scene depends on our very openness. Of the population of academics who were research-active and associated with the UK at some stage between 1996 and 2010, almost two thirds were also affiliated to a non-UK institution. We are remarkably well-connected. Nearly half of all publications from UK research between 2006 and 2010 had a non-UK co-author. The same data throw up another positive trend - that, judging by changing institutional affiliations in publications, the UK attracts and retains talent from other countries.

The report also demonstrates the breadth of our research base, with more than 400 fields very strong in international terms - and some areas exceptionally strong: brain research, health science, and the social sciences. Here is evidence which shows just how misconceived and damaging is the civil war which has dominated our intellectual life for too long: the arts versus the sciences; or, as Eric Schmidt has put it recently, the luvvies versus the boffins. I completely agree with Eric, that we “need to bring art and science back together” in this country.

So I have been surprised by how our changes to the research budget settlement and university funding have been construed as the latest moves in this ancient conflict. We are told that the shift from grants to fees and loans somehow penalises the arts and humanities. It is, in fact, a scrupulously neutral policy. All subjects are having teaching grants transferred into fees and loans.

I’m still being told that research in the humanities and social sciences is being penalised as part of a crude utilitarianism. The opposite is the case. For the first time, funding delivered through HEFCE’s research assessment is protected within the science ring fence, not just the research funding from the research councils. The humanities and social sciences are heavily represented there. HEFCE’s Quality Related funding, as it’s called, is of particular value to the arts, humanities and social sciences, as they traditionally receive about a third of it. In addition, funding for the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Academy have been protected.

We are unashamedly in favour of more student choice, which is why we want money to follow the decisions of learners. But, equally, we recognise that is in the national interest to nurture, sustain and protect some high-cost and vulnerable subjects. So I am pleased that HEFCE has, this week, decided to exclude “strategically important and vulnerable subjects” - SIVS - from the core-and-margin policy for 2012-13, so long as institutions at least maintain their current entrant levels to these courses. The second stage of HEFCE’s consultation on teaching funding, to be published in the new year, will contain more information about the approach to SIVS beyond 2012-13.

Government support for science

All of this evidence points to the fact that the Coalition was right to protect the budget for science and research last October - a year ago tomorrow, in fact. The research base is among our greatest national assets and vital for our future. The ring-fenced settlement for 2011-15 is actually better than its predecessor as, for the first time, it covers all publicly funded research activity. Protecting funding inside the ring fence is a commitment to maintaining activity even in tough times.

I know the ring fence excludes capital. But I was presented by the Research Councils with eight high-priority capital projects which really mattered to the research community. In the past year, I’m pleased to say that we have been able to earmark funding for six of those eight projects.

That means a promising future for the Diamond light source; support for the birth cohort study, the biggest ever UK-wide study of babies and young children; money for the ISIS facility, to keep the UK at the forefront of neutron research; investment to improve how we store and access bio-molecular research data; for upgrading our supercomputing capability and to develop the Hartree Centre at Daresbury, which specialises in computational science and engineering. The Rothera Antarctic station and the Institute for Animal Health at Compton are the only ones left on the wish list. Here is further evidence of our commitment to research in spite of tough times. The science and research community has a strong supporter in George Osborne who appreciates the scale of its intellectual and economic contribution to this country.

Indeed there is other evidence too of our commitment. One is Libel law. We must protect the principles by which science progresses. Debate is critical to the scientific process, and to the cause of public engagement. The Coalition’s draft Defamation Bill, published in March, contains several important clauses which should protect this debate from unjustified libel actions, while enabling people who have genuinely been defamed to protect their reputations. Following a consultation period, the Parliamentary Joint Committee is publishing its report on the draft Bill today, and the Government will be giving this and the consultation responses careful consideration before deciding the way forward.

On more immediate matters, the European ruling on stem cell inventions was, on the face of it, disappointing. We, of course, want a patent framework that is supportive of this research to encourage and deliver cell therapies that could tackle serious medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. However, we need to fully interpret the ruling and are discussing with experts the impact it will have. The UK is a world leader in the research and development of stem cell therapies, and we intend to continue supporting and funding research on all sources of stem cells, including embryonic ones.

I’m not going to use this occasion, however, to present an entirely rose-tinted picture of our research base, for that would be a distortion. Sir Gareth stuck his head above the parapet several times to express concerns about the HE sector; indeed, by voicing his frustrations over funding, he precipitated Dearing. In that spirit, I want to pick up on something the Prime Minister observed just a week or so ago - that we, in Britain, are great inventors, responsible for so many scientific and intellectual breakthroughs and yet don’t always exploit them as much as we might. The Elsevier report finds - for example - that more papers are co-authored with industry in Japan, the US, Germany and France than in the UK.


This brings me to the complex - and frankly misunderstood - topic of impact; the way we define and evaluate it, and to what ends. Gareth Roberts, of course, was an authority in this area as well - not least from his review, in 2003, of the Research Assessment Exercise. In my own discussions with the funding councils about the introduction of its successor, the Research Excellence Framework, Gareth’s admonition that all methods of evaluation distort the target of assessment has stayed uppermost in my mind.

Most of you will recall that the initial proposal for the REF, courtesy of Gordon Brown, was for a bibliometric-based, target-driven exercise - and it was dismissed out of hand by the academic community because it would have failed to capture the panoply of ways in which publicly-funded research makes a difference in non-academic contexts. Assessment by expert panels was retained, and the four UK funding bodies on HE have been working for some time on making sure that the REF creates the right incentives to reward researchers for informing policy making, promoting social and cultural wellbeing and, yes, contributing to the economy too - simultaneously enabling the Government to continue making the case for using taxpayers’ money to support their work.

There is, I believe, general support for the principle of researchers explaining how their findings have real-world benefits. But it has attracted controversy because of concerns about how impact will actually be assessed through both the REF and in the funding competitions run by the Research Councils. I’d like to respond to fears that assessing impact will variously undermine long-term blue-skies research and disadvantage the arts and humanities. I want to address claims that this agenda will require academics to become crystal ball gazers or invent far-fetched accounts of impact, thereby distorting the true nature of their research and undermining their academic integrity.

Let me be clear. I do not want to see our researchers reduced to a grey utilitarian conformity. Intellectual curiosity and blue skies thinking are not going to be beaten out of you. It was pure research which led to the Nobel Prize-winning material graphene, some flakes of which are now proudly on display in my office. We’ve just allocated an extra £50 million for a research and technology hub to exploit the commercial possibilities around graphene - and we have no desire to strangle other curiosity-driven work which, by accident or design, may yield other promising scientific breakthroughs.

But the suspicions and the scepticism around impact persist. It’s no secret that I had misgivings of my own when I became the minister for universities and science, which influenced the decision to delay introduction of the REF. Now, after discussions with the Funding Councils, my view is that it is sensible to maximise the reach of the excellent research being conducted in this country and it is possible to provide tangible evidence of doing so.

Let me try to address some of the misconceptions. There will be two different ways of assessing impact of research - in line with the two main sources of public funding in this country: through the HE funding bodies and through the Research Councils. In the REF, impact will be assessed retrospectively. Research Councils look at impact throughout projects and beyond, starting with the prospective aims of applicants in their original bids for funding. I’ll address each in turn.

Ahead of the first REF process, which concludes in 2014, four overarching panels of academics - covering the health and biological sciences; engineering, physical and environmental sciences; economic and social sciences; and the arts and humanities - have worked out impact criteria according to the nature of their respective disciplines. These criteria have been disseminated among the research community for discussion - and a consultation period has just ended. The criteria for engineering, say, have been established on a separate basis from those which will apply to social sciences.

At no stage will anyone attempt to compare the relative impact of different research fields. There are, however, principles which inform the entire impact agenda, regardless of subject area. Put simply, academics will be asked to show how, on the basis of excellent research undertaken over a 15-year timeframe, they have made a contribution beyond their institution. This allows a period which allows sufficient gestation from their original work. Perhaps more important, impact in the REF will, unlike academic output, be evaluated at departmental level. Participating academics will have the quality of their actual research determined on the basis of academic excellence, pure and simple.

But for impact, departments will be expected to provide examples - case studies - which represent their collective contribution. For every 10 members of staff whose work will be reviewed under the REF, their department will need to provide one example - evidence, perhaps, of its lecturers contributing to a successful museum exhibition, in the case of a history or archaeology department; evidence of how staff in a chemistry department have helped to tackle a problem facing business. This measure of impact will count for 20 per cent of a department’s overall performance. The criterion of research excellence is a necessary condition for impact to be considered. Critically, the guidelines for impact in the REF have been worked out first by panels of experts, who will refine them according to feedback from broader disciplinary communities.

Now on to the Research Councils, whose Pathways to Impact framework is also the product of a consultative process. The grant application forms - which have been in their current incarnation since 2009 - require researchers not to predict what their work might lead to 25 or 50 years hence, but to think through and describe how they will attempt to increase the potential reach of their work as it progresses. It’s about encouraging researchers to consider potential beneficiaries from the beginning of a project and ways in which to involve these beneficiaries in the research process. Again, the forms are tailored to different disciplines: the criteria for a law-related research proposal are different from those which apply to medicine.

Over the past three years, the Research Councils have reduced the reporting burden on researchers by half, through streamlining the final reports that grant holders are required to submit. There is still more to do. The Councils are also improving their approach to gathering information on research outcomes - allowing grant holders to feedback information on benefits as and when they occurs, even after a grant has ended. The Councils must work with - and for - the research communities they fund, so their systems are designed in large part by those same communities.

There is another way in which the HE funding bodies and the Research Councils are striving to prevent the REF and the grants system from stifling intellectual creativity. Multidisciplinarity is a feature of the modern research world. We don’t want researchers or their research to be pigeonholed, for that is a sure-fire way to limit their scope and their impact. It is important that submissions for the REF and to the Research Councils can potentially be assessed by more than one panel or Council to avoid excellent multidisciplinary work slipping through the cracks and going unrewarded or unfunded. Indeed, the REF assessment panels next time will be more broad-based in subject terms than previously.

One way of maximising impact is through transparency. At the British Science Festival in Bradford last month, I announced the creation of an independent working group - with Dame Janet Finch at the helm - to examine how UK-funded research findings can be made more readily accessible to other researchers, policy makers and the general public. It’s right that people should see what their taxes go towards - to ask questions about it, to be proud of it, to use or even challenge it. Wherever possible, it shouldn’t lie hidden behind a pay wall. Professor Finch’s group will include academics, investors in research, scholarly publishers and libraries.

Peer review and concentration

One measure of research excellence which often applies is appearance in peer-reviewed journals. The practice of peer review, like the approach to assessing impact in the REF, has largely been determined by the community. It is not imposed by Government. I see myself as a servant of the scientific community and I support the systems academics have designed themselves. However, over the past 18 months, I’ve also listened to representatives from several academic fields describing some of the potentially distorting effects of peer reviewed journals - and I mention this here, alongside impact, because of a tendency to conflate the two in discussions about the REF.

Business school researchers, for example, have spoken of the dominance of US-based publications in their field, whose prestige is such that UK-based academics feel obliged to work on topics likely to be regarded favourably by their editorial boards - deep quantitative analysis of North American industry trends - rather than problems closer to home. The Royal College of Surgeons, meanwhile, has highlighted that the lack of medical journals specializing in surgery have contributed to a decline in research on surgery here in the UK - with knock-on effects for clinical innovations and outcomes. I generally find such observations persuasive. These are real problems.

I do of course understand the ambition of academics to have their work published in journals with the strongest reputations internationally. Acceptance by these publications is a valid marker of quality. But I should also point out that the REF - like the RAE before it - does not impose this as a test. The instructions to assessment panels are that they must judge on the basis of quality, quality, quality - not location, location, location. So individual researchers can submit pieces of work that have appeared outside the conventional hierarchy of journals, and I am assured by the people running the REF that they will not be penalised for this.

It is quality that matters. Quality may be high in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals but the assessment panels have to look behind that indicator at the reality - exactly as Gareth Roberts warned. Now, individual universities may have a different perspective on the journals you should have published in when it comes to promotion and recruitment, but the REF process makes no such judgements.

As I’ve stressed, the clear direction from HEFCE, from the Research Councils and from the Government is that academics can try to disseminate their work in various ways - not solely in the pages of hallowed journals. At the same time, the clear message from every branch of academia is that peer review remains the best means available for assessing excellence. Impact is one way to ease this tension by encouraging departments to look beyond publication in a peer-reviewed journal as the be all and end all of academic life.

Whilst we are clearing away misconceptions, let me make it clear that I don’t support yet more research concentration as an aim in itself. Neither Vince Cable nor I believe that public funding should be focused on a smaller number of elite departments or research groups. I repeat: the emphasis is on excellence wherever it exists. Funding awarded through the REF can and will support pockets of excellence, including lone scholars.

There have been some accusations, for instance, that the Research Councils’ doctoral centres represent concentration on the sly. I don’t think this is fair. We must recognise that critical mass does confer certain advantages - such as the ability to leverage private investment and accrue sufficient resource to provide postgrads with training as good as anywhere in the world. Another advantage is that the doctoral centres are multidisciplinary by design - not places steering students towards homogeneity but places which can and do cater to novel approaches. Indeed, the ESRC is working to forge connections between their training centres and PhD students based in smaller, excellent departments. Moreover the Research Councils support only a small proportion of funded PhD students in this country - about 25 per cent. Much more comes from business, from charities, from universities themselves. This is another support for diversity.

Research careers

We do need to focus on serving the best interests of postgraduates and doctoral students more broadly. In the White Paper, I tasked HEFCE with reviewing participation in postgraduate study following the changes to undergraduate funding, and to consider what additional data should be collected about postgraduates, so that we can better understand access issues. I recognise that uncertainty about postgraduate provision remains following the HE reforms, and BIS will continue to work closely with HEFCE on this.

We know already, courtesy of the Royal Society, about later stages on the career path for academic researchers, and I have also received a weighty report from Science is Vital. In a typical cohort of 100 doctoral students, just over half will leave science immediately on completing their degrees. Among those who go on to a postdoc, perhaps one in 10 will subsequently gain a permanent post. The chances of making it all the way to a professorship are slim.

I’m not making any value judgments about what people do with a science PhD. Calling the science career structure a leaky pipeline - as if it is some virgin Arctic tundra polluted by oil - is not a sensible way to think of researchers who become teachers or uses the academic skills they have mastered in business or elsewhere. There are many officials in my department with doctorates, and a good thing too. I actually have three science PhDs in my office - three bundles of impact, as I like to think of them. Nor is it right to think that every academic career should end with a regius professorship. Researchers should be able to have useful and fulfilling academic careers without becoming professors, as well as careers beyond academia. That is why I recognise the issue of - shall we say - a pyramid in HE with a very broad base and a very narrow tip.

At the same time, Professors Geim and Novoselov, the Manchester physicists behind graphene, have told me that a major plus of the UK science base is that it encourages young researchers to pursue their own interests and thrives accordingly. The atmosphere here is very different from some other countries, where up-and-coming scientists can spend many years deferring to the big barons. Here, we value youthful thinking.

Next week, I am co-hosting a research careers roundtable at the Royal Society with Sir Paul Nurse to discuss the basic thinking. Is there an optimal ratio between the base of the pyramid and its height? Do we need to do more for mid-career researchers? Can we do more to make things genuinely gender neutral? Given the system cannot provide the number of senior academic positions desired by the pool of young researchers we have, should a long-term research career remain the automatic assumption for graduates entering PhD courses or postdoctoral positions? If not, how should we prepare them for life beyond academia - making sure that the UK research base has sufficient talent, as well as making sure that other parts of our economy and society can benefit from their research skills?

There are other questions for us to consider. I mentioned earlier the positive effects of the international collaborations our scientists undertake, and the attractiveness of the UK to leading academics. But the new report on productivity also identifies a link between international mobility and productivity. While the total number of UK researchers has remained fairly constant, the individuals that comprise the UK total changes constantly. More than 63 per cent of actively-publishing UK researchers have worked at non-UK institutions at some point in their careers. These researchers also publish two thirds more papers than the researchers that have never left the UK.

The implications here are far-reaching, not least for the gender diversity of our research base. Equally, we should explore to what extent - if any - short-termism in research contracts influences the kind of research produced and the profile of the researcher responsible. I’m also very keen that young researchers, if they wish, can have a career trajectory like Gareth Roberts himself - moving easily, back and forth, between university and industry. His contribution to physics was predicated on his time at Xerox and, later, at Thorn EMI. His contribution at the Sheffield Development Corporation and Oxford University’s Business Park was predicated on the whole gamut of experience that he gained. If only we had Gareth Roberts to steer our discussions.

Science technicians

We need to think carefully about career paths at technician level too. The virtuous relationship between science and technology was a central theme of the Reith Lectures delivered by Lord Rees. Technology enables scientific enquiry and vice-versa. It’s why the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge proudly displays the cloud chambers - made by highly skilled glass blowers - without which it could not have won some of its Nobel prizes for physics.

I am delighted this evening to announce the launch of two new professional registers for technicians. As you may know, BIS is investing £450,000 to support the work of the Technician Council - whose other supporters include major employers and the Science Council, of which Sir Gareth was the founding president. David Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation is also a supporter. I’m grateful for that, and I congratulate him on being elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

The registers will help to ensure that technicians’ expertise - in engineering, science, ICT and health - is properly recognised by employers and the scientific community. They’ll provide something for young apprentices and students in vocational programmes to aim for. Businesses and research facilities will have clearer expectations about the capabilities of technicians, while the technicians themselves will able to use registration with the Council as the springboard towards further qualifications and progression into related professions.


So my message today is, I hope, a coherent and optimistic one. I want the UK research base to realise its full potential and exploit all its strengths. The public investment is strong and continues, even in tough times. The policy on impact, designed by the research community for both the REF and the Research Councils, is a means to precisely that end - real-world impact - and should not be regarded as inimical to it. We’re absolutely committed to make the most of what we possess: intelligence, international connections, infrastructure.

Gareth Roberts would have been a lively voice in the current debate on what’s happening now in HE, in science and in the economy at large. I am sure that he would be focused on defending both pure and applied research, on promoting high-quality teaching in universities, on improving career opportunities for young researchers. Those are ambitions which we, in this Coalition, are committed to as well.

Published 19 October 2011