In these times of economic stringency, it is particularly important that Government sets the right priorities for publicly funded research so as to achieve value for money whilst promoting the highest calibre research to ensure that the benefits of research are fully realised for society. In this context, the Committee has taken a critical look at the mechanisms currently in place which are intended to ensure that decisions about funding to support research are based on the best available advice.
Decisions about funding priorities are complex and require careful judgement about the deployment of funds between competing priorities. They involve an interplay between differing research objectives pursued by different institutions, ranging over the research councils, higher education funding councils and Government departments. Added to this is the pressing demand on funding resources brought about by major regional, national and international societal needs, including the "grand challenges" such as climate change and food and energy security.
The Committee concludes that, in the current policy framework, there is a lack of oversight of the total spend on research which is needed to enable the Government to make coherent, well-founded decisions about the use of public funds to support research. To help provide Government with the necessary oversight the Committee recommends that:
- the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) should publish figures annually, broken down by subject area, on all public spending to support research, and make appropriate recommendations to the Prime Minister
- he should also attend Treasury meetings at which departmental budgets are considered
- departmental CSAs should provide Ministers with timely information in advance of budget negotiations, to ensure that research funding decisions are informed by the best available advice.
The Committee was also alerted to problems concerning the funding of cross-departmental research involving multiple funding agencies, including research to meet the grand challenges that society faces. To meet such challenges, the Committee recommends the establishment of specific mechanisms: to identify major cross-cutting policy challenges; and to identify, fund and co-ordinate appropriate responses to such challenges.
The Committee received a wide range of evidence during the course of the inquiry. Recognising the high-level character of the recommendations contained in today’s report, the Committee identifies a number of issues which it believes would warrant further investigation in the future. These include the role of 'impact' as a criterion in decisions about research funding and the importance of supporting private-sector research and innovation.
Commenting on the report, Lord Sutherland, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said:
"There is a need for Government to set out their current research funding commitments, which must be maintained in the long term if the pursuit of knowledge and its translation into practical applications are to meet the needs of society as effectively as possible.
"Clearly in times of economic uncertainty decisions about how to allocate public funds are especially complex. The recommendations in our report are intended to help ensure that the Government are well placed to make informed and effective research funding decisions and that robust mechanisms exist so that decisions on research funding are based on the best available advice".