Two themes dominate the Conservative government’s approach to science: research excellence and local economic growth. Are they compatible?

Chancellor George Osborne is living up to his avowed commitment to science. He talked about radio astronomy in his speech to the CBI, an industry lobby group, and even mentioned science in his Mansion House speech to City grandees. This month’s budget and productivity plan make unequivocal commitments to excellence. In the productivity plan, science sits alongside transport, telecommunications, taxation and welfare reform as a major component of the economic agenda.

Jo Johnson, the minister for universities and science, told parliament recently that the government was committed to investing in science. Elsewhere, he committed to maintaining the UK’s world-class research base. This reiterates prime minister David Cameron’s pre-election letter to the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), in which he promised that “we want to see our strong and worldwide reputation in this hugely important area continue to go from strength to strength”.

The government also expresses enthusiasm for the Northern Powerhouse and the development of local economies. In July, £400 million in capital investment from the March budget was reassigned for proposals serving both research excellence and local economies.

Last month’s report on university-business relations from Ann Dowling hits many nails on the head. It connects science to productivity. It reinforces national strengths such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, and it addresses some stubborn problems such as the VAT liabilities faced by universities that house business partners. It also recommends simplified innovation support, nationally and locally.

The government is yet to respond in detail to the report. The previous administration preferred commissioning such reviews to implementing their findings. This government, free from coalition complexities, may well deliver a stronger response.

There has been no commitment to maintaining—let alone increasing—the science budget. That will wait until this autumn’s spending review. Optimists might infer from Cameron’s letter to CaSE that science investment will go from strength to strength. Such support is encouraging, but we should certainly not rely on that inference.

So far there has also been no commitment to the ring fence or to the Haldane principle—commitments that would cost nothing. The government has committed to the dual-support funding system, strong university-
business relations and remaining a world leader in science—so why the silence on two things that are so important to securing the UK’s remarkable scientific performance from unremarkable funding levels?

Let us hope that this silence is not related to plans for regional science and innovation audits. The audits themselves are not a bad thing. Evidence of the geographic spread of research and business strengths will inform investments in economic development. And if work by the National Centre for Universities and Business, the Scottish government and the N8 universities is taken into account, early analyses can be completed quickly.

The audits could stimulate collaboration between universities and nearby businesses, and they may reveal opportunities for Catapult centres to be based at universities. These plans are exciting. But the audits will inevitably damage the UK’s fragile scientific position if they are used to allocate science and research funding by postcode rather than performance.

Strong science is sustained by meritocratic allocation of resources based on peer review. Diverting support from top-quality science in one place to poorer work elsewhere would serve no purpose except, perhaps, to reinforce the lower quality. It would be more likely to damage scientific capabilities than to build them, and it would clearly conflict with the productivity plan’s commitment to “support excellence wherever it is found”.

One approach would be to create a funding stream, separate from excellence-based investment, to build additional scientific capabilities in geographic areas identified through the audits. Capability could then grow separately from the competition for regular funding.

Once mature, these capabilities would have the strength to compete nationally and internationally. Success in these competitions would build further strength and reputation. Thereafter, the regional funding stream could fold into the science budget to invest in the newly diversified science base.

This approach would require extra funding, beyond that required to maintain existing levels of performance. It’s a lot to ask for—but what is the alternative?

First appeared in Research Fortnight on 22 July.