Cable announces ‘rationing’ of government research funding

Government research funding is set to be ‘rationed’ to those projects deemed to be most excellent, the business secretary said today.

Leading scientists quickly condemned a speech given by Vince Cable at Queen Mary University in London, while industry spokespeople welcomed the message on the need for the research community to build better links with business.

‘My preference is to ration research funding by excellence and back research teams of international quality – and screen out mediocrity – regardless of where they are and what they do,’ he said.

‘I support, of course, top-class “blue-skies” research, but there is no justification for taxpayers’ money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.’

He said that the government should not politicise the choice of research to support and that ministers and officials should not make ‘arbitrary, far-reaching decisions such as whether Britain should or should not “do” nanotechnology or space research’.

But he said there was a case for identifying broad problems, such as the challenges of an ageing population and climate change, which would need people working across multiple disciplines.

Cable also identified several areas of research that he felt were worth building up because of the UK’s world-leading position in them. These included stem cells and regenerative medicine, plastic electronics, satellite communications, fuel cells, advanced manufacturing and composite materials.

He repeated the message, previously articulated by science minister David Willetts, that university research teams needed to do more to capitalise on their work, and that the government was interested in creating institutes similar to Fraunhofer in Germany to give innovation more of a business focus.

Prominent members of the science community were quick to stress the point that research funding should be seen as an investment rather than wasteful spending that needed to be cut.

Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said cutting science expenditure at a time when other nations were increasing theirs would send the wrong signal to ‘mobile talent’ and young people.

‘A cut by “X per cent” would lead to a decline of much more than “X per cent” in top-grade scientific output,’ he said. ‘The question should not be “can we afford the investment?” – it should be “can we afford the cuts?”’

Prof Paddy Regan, physics professor at Surrey University and a member of the STFC’s Education, Research and Training Committee, said: ‘While we are all completely aware of the “current economic environment” and the limitations of budget, the government needs to realise that further cuts in fundamental research budgets, added to parallel university reductions in funding, could very well leave the UK as a research and technological wasteland.’

However, some messages from the business community were more positive. Richard Barker of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), said: ‘We are pleased to see several key aspects of Vince Cable’s thinking: a focus on globally competitive excellence, productive collaboration with industry, IP generated and kept here in the UK, and the need to keep the UK open to top-class researchers from wherever in the world they originate.’

Colin McKinnon, innovation leader at engineering consultancy Buro Happold, said: ‘It makes sense to focus expenditure on areas where the UK research base leads the world…This will be helped by exploring ways to extend collaboration across geographical borders – historically a difficult area to manage given the lack of transnational funding mechanisms outside of Europe.’

Giving his view on Cable’s speech in no uncertain terms, former president of the Royal Society, Lord May, said: ‘His claim that public money should not be made available to research that “is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding” is just plain stupid.’