Willetts proposes new model for funding innovation

The science minister has given his support to state investment in research while calling for a rethink in the spending and assessment model.

In his first major speech as minister for universities and science, David Willetts today told the Royal Institution that government backing for research made good economic sense.

But he argued that government support for innovation could take other forms than grants for university research, and that its impact did not have to be measured through the success of spinouts.

Speaking in response to a question about the speech, Willetts said: ‘I can’t promise there won’t be cuts – we are facing very tough public spending reductions – but this is an area where if we can show there’s a long-term economic return, I believe the Treasury will listen and understand that model.’

The minister argued that evidence for the importance of research investment could go beyond immediate economic impact, referring to the ‘benefits – often unanticipated – which accrue from blue skies research’.

He announced that the Research Excellence Framework – the new plan to assess research in terms of quality and impact – would be delayed by one year to allow funding bodies and the government to decide if it was the best way of assessing research.

But he argued for a change in thinking to the previous government’s ‘sausage machine’ model for innovation, where university funding went in and spinouts and patents came out.

‘The challenge we face is to make best use of our science base,’ he said. ‘I strongly believe that contribution may come best if we encourage openness and innovation, not if we try to micromanage our universities, direct researchers or count patents.’

As an alternative, he highlighted ‘clusters’ of technology firms such as the computer games industry that has grown up around Dundee. He noted the importance of making use of foreign R&D but also the spillover benefits from money given to research councils.

Backing for shared facilities, spending money on business contracts rather than direct grants, and public competitions for new technologies were other ways the government could encourage scientific research, he said.

Willetts said the details of investment levels would have to wait until the government’s autumn Comprehensive Spending Review, but he also hinted at potential cutbacks.

‘Public spending on science, just like everything else, has to stand up to rigorous economic scrutiny,’ he said.