20 March 2011

Who calls the shots at the Research Councils?

The UK’s Research Councils regularly have to fight off accusations, especially from academics, that they hand out money to satisfy the whims of their political paymasters. “Never,” say the councils, “we decide where to invest on the basis of requests from the research community and peer review.” in this way, the RCs argue that they don’t decide where to spend the money, they leave it to the country’s academics to tell them where it should go.

Somehow, this reasoning falls apart when politicians leap at every opportunity to claim credit for any spending.

Take last week’s announcements about money for research into manufacturing.

It seems reasonable enough for the government, in the shape of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and the Deputy Prime Minister, probably Nick Clegg, although the press release that went with the announcement forgets to give him a name check, to take the credit for “the country’s first Technology and Innovation Centre (TIC)”, the High Value Manufacturing TIC. The TICs and the body that is set to run these operations, the Technology Strategy Board, are undeniably children of BIS. But claims of independence in research funding begin to evaporate when another member of the government, David Willetts, boasts of putting money into manufacturing via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The suspicions begins when the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the playground of Cable and Willetts, puts out a press release proclaiming “A £51 million investment to ensure the UK stays at the leading edge of manufacturing research was unveiled today by Universities and Science Minister David Willetts”. The release compounds the suspicions of government influence when it goes on to say “The announcement forms part of the Advanced Manufacturing strand of the Government’s Growth Review and will help stimulate growth through research in the most promising areas of manufacturing including pharmaceuticals, aerospace and the automotive industry.”

It may well be that EPSRC came up with this plan all on its own. But, unlike the announcement about the TICs, there is no mention of an EPSRC press contact in the release. The EPSRC doesn’t seem to have anything to say about the announcement. Its own website merely regurgitates the piece from BIS. There isn’t even a quote from anyone at EPSRC that lazy “churnalists” can recycle.

Perhaps EPSRC’s silence is another symptom of the government’s current embargo on spending on publicity and other extraneous “fluff”, which prevents Research Councils from putting money into promotional activities. If so, this throws an interesting light on that embargo: maybe it has nothing to do with saving money after all, but is a way in which the government can hog the limelight.