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Brian Owens
I am News Editor of Research Fortnight and Research Europe
Recent Activity
The government today announced detailed spending plans for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the seven UK Research Councils for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15. The plans were unveiled by universities and science minister David Willetts at a briefing in London this morning. As expected, they amount to a 12 per cent budget cut in cash terms over four years. Almost all of the seven research councils have announced capital spending budgets cuts as much as 50 per cent. The plans also indicate a stronger focus towards funding research that meets UK strategic policy priorities and a move towards yet more concentration. However, there are rewards for researchers working in knowledge transfer. The Medical Research Council will be able to keep its patent income and there is also protection for the popular Higher Education Innovation Fund. The Science... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2010 at Research Blogs
The pilot exercise to test the Higher Education Funding Council for England's plans to assess economic and social impact in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework has reported back, and on the whole the people who took part—at least those who chaired the evaluation panels—are satisfied that it works. This will certainly be a relief to HEFCE, who have faced harsh criticism over the past year from academics implacably opposed to impact assessment , though in some cases that ire would have been better directed at the research councils. The pilot panel chairs did recommed some changes to make the system work better. They want the weighting given to the impact element to be reduced from the planned 25 per cent, at least for the first go-round, until everyone gets used to it. This is a sesible suggestion, which universities and... Continue reading
Posted Nov 11, 2010 at Research Blogs
Going abroad would certainly mean the avoid paying the fees in the UK, but that would generally involve paying overseas student fees, which may require taking out a bank loan, on worse terms than the government interest rate.
The amount of time they spend justifying their existing programmes to attract poorer students in the statement certainly suggests they all plan to jump straight to charging the maximum allowed.
The news broke yesterday evening that the UK's £4.6 billion science budget would be protected from cuts in today's comprehensive spending review. The Times, The Guardian, the BBC and the Financial Times all carried various versions of the story. A flat cash settlement—that is, no changes to the science budget—for the next four years is probably about the best outcome the science community could hope for, but it still amounts to a 10 per cent cut over the four years once inflation is taken into account. Given that researchers were bracing themselves for cuts of up to 25 per cent, and had taken to the streets in protest, this will be seen as a victory. But there are still questions left unanswered. Piecing together the various reports, it seems that the "protected" money includes the budget for the seven research... Continue reading
Posted Oct 20, 2010 at Research Blogs
All of the major newspapers have responded to the Browne review of university finance on their editorial pages today. Most were generally in favour of Browne’s plans—with the notable exception of The Daily Mail. Here’s a round-up of what they said: The Guardian The lefty paper accepts the necessity of higher fees, and appreciates Browne’s attempt to protect poorer students. “The Liberal Democrats, who were in denial about higher education's financial problems at the election, have been forced to make a rapid U-turn to an uncomfortable reality.” “The great virtue of Lord Browne's report is that it recognises the realities while attempting to uphold a core set of policy principles that should be broadly supported.” But still wants definite upper limit on fees, and wants the repayment system to squeeze higher earners more. “Not everything about the report is right,... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2010 at Research Blogs
***From our Ireland correspondent, Dick Ahlstrom*** Ireland’s science minister Conor Lenihan has been in the wars over the past few days, all over a simple book launch planned for Wednesday 15 September. But while the launch was straightforward enough the book wasn’t, a tome declaring that evolution is nothing more than a fantasy and a hoax. The Origin of Specious Nonsense by John J May is a rambling, pointless book that purports to smash the “theory” of evolution. It readily disregards the abundance of scientific research across many disciplines that shows quite clearly that evolution is not a theory but accepted mainstream science. Even the Catholic Church readily agrees, but not Mr May. Enough said. Lenihan started a firestorm of tweets, emails and news copy after he accepted an invitation to attend and speak at the book launch, hardly an... Continue reading
Posted Sep 14, 2010 at Research Blogs
HEFCE has announced the new time frame for the Research Excellence Framework, after science minister David Willetts confirmed last week that it would be delayed for a year to give HEFCE and academics more time to design an acceptable way to measure the social and economic impact of research. Here is the revised REF timetable: July 2010 – Announce panel structure and start recruitment of expert panels September 2010 – Deadline for applications for sub panel chairs October 2010 – Deadline for nominating panel members November 2010 – Impact pilot exercise report and events December 2010 – Panel recruitment completed Early 2011 – Panels begin meeting Mid 2011 – Panels consult on criteria Mid 2011 – Guidance on submissions published Late 2011 – Panel criteria and methods published Early 2013 – Submission system operational Late 2013 – Submissions deadline 2014... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2010 at Research Blogs
There were a couple of interesting things to come out of science minister David Willetts' speech at the Royal Institution today. He confirmed that the Research Excellence Framework would be delayed for a year while Hefce sorts out how to measure impact in a way that wont cause a mass revolt in the universities. But we already knew that was coming. More interesting were his comments on the concentration of research funding, and the economic arguements for government investment in science. Let's take concentration first. In the speech, Willetts said he was in favour of concentrating funding on excellent research. But (sorry Russell Group) he said "excellence is to be found in individual departments". At a press briefing before the speech, he went even further, saying concentration was "not a matter for entire universities". So it would seem Willetts is... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2010 at Research Blogs
Today, we got our first indication of how the coalition government, or at least the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, will deal with the tricky issues on which the Lib Dem and Conservative partners disagree. Universities minister David Willetts gave a speech at Oxford Brookes University this afternoon on the funding of higher education, following his widely reported remarks to The Guardian that the cost of so many students on degree courses were a "burden on the taxpayer", widely interpreted as hint that tuition fees were likely to rise. Fees are, of course, one of the major sources of conflict between the two coalition partners, with the Lib Dems securing the right to abstain from any vote on raising them. So when we asked to see the text of Willetts' speech, BIS had to go through some painful contortions... Continue reading
Posted Jun 10, 2010 at Research Blogs
David Willetts came face to face with London’s science press corps today at the Science Media Centre. Compared to his predecessor Paul Drayson, he comes across as less energetic and enthusiastic, more considered and cerebral. You can see where he got his nickname “Two Brains”. Willetts seems interested in how the scientific method can be applied to policy across government. The scientific mindset, he said, was one of the most important shared ways of thinking that we have. Using scientific evidence, he said, was one of the best ways to reach out to the public across ideological, religious and cultural lines. I wonder if he’s tried telling that to David Nutt. Of course, with the government’s first £6 billion in cuts to be announced next Monday, what we really wanted him to talk about was money. Will he fight to... Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2010 at Research Blogs
The BBC is reporting that one of the concessions the Liberal Democrats have extracted from the Conservatives as the price for their participation in the coalition government is an immediate reform of the House of Lords. The reforms would reportedly create a fully elected upper chamber, elected by a system of proportional representation. This would, of course, be a step forward for democracy in the mother of all parliaments. It seems bizarre, to say the least, that in 2010 there are still a few peers who owe their position to the circumstances of their birth or the fact that they are a Bishop in the Church of England. But could this proposed reform have a sting in the tail for science and research? Just before the election, I commented on the retirement of so many science advocates in the House... Continue reading
Posted May 12, 2010 at Research Blogs
I was on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves last night, discussing how science should deal with increasing public scrutiny with the science writers Gabrielle Walker and Marcus Chown. If you missed it, you can listen again on BBC iplayer. We start at 16:45, after Malcolm Maclaren's obituary. It was an interesting and rather wide-ranging discussion, covering peer review, certainty and the danger of consensus. Do you agree with our analysis? Were we completely off the mark? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Continue reading
Posted Apr 9, 2010 at Research Blogs
Ok, we all pretty much know that the UK General Election is going to be held on 6 May, to coincide with the local elections, just like last time. The timing of tomorrow's Budget offers another hint. But the government won't confirm it until Gordon Brown officially calls the election, so we're left to read the tea leaves to look for clues that support our suspicions. I got one of those hints this afternoon. While meeting with my MP, Labour's Neil Gerrard, to discuss libel reform, he casually mentioned "we only have 8 sitting days left" in this parliament. Taking the Easter recess into account, this would put an election call on 8 April, four weeks before 6 May. What more evidence do you need? Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2010 at Research Blogs
The campaign for libel reform scored a victory today when justice secretary Jack Straw announced that the government would begin working on reforms to England's defamation laws, possibly through a libel reform bill. The move came as the campaign organised a "mass lobby" in the Houses of Parliament, asking supporters to all request a meeting with their MPs at the same time to discuss the issue. Straw accepted many of the recommendations of the Ministry of Justice's Libel Working Group report, including creating a "single publication rule" to prevent claimants from bringing a separate claim for every time a story is read on the internet. He would also like to create a statutory public interest defence, and curb the spread of "libel tourism", where claimants press their case in the English courts because they offer the most sympathetic venue. Straw's... Continue reading
Posted Mar 23, 2010 at Research Blogs
England's top universities will get a boost in the research portion of their block grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2010-11, according to the funding council's preliminary funding allocations, published today.The University of Oxford came out top, with a £7 million - 6 per cent - rise in research funding. The University of Cambridge gained 3.7 per cent, University College London 4.3 per cent, Imperial College London 3.3 per cent and the University of Manchester 2.4 per cent. These institutions, the top five in terms of research funding, between them took 33 per cent of the £1.6 billion pot, a marginally larger share than last year. Most of the rest of the Russell Group of large research intensive universities also saw increases, though the Universities of Liverpool and Newcastle saw small declines. Losses to other universities... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2010 at Research Blogs
Adam Afriyie started to put some meat on the bones of Conservative science policy at the third debate between the main parties' science spokesmen last night. He made a “personal commitment” to researchers that they would “get the resources you need”, though he added that the first priority of a Conservative government would be to fix the economy. “Until the deficit is under control, all public spending will be constrained,” he said. Afriyie promised that the Tories would offer stable funding with a “multi-year” ring-fenced science budget. He did not say how many years it would be, but told me afterwards that it could be longer than the three years offered by the Labour government's comprehensive spending reviews. Afriyie also attacked the government's decision not to hold a CSR ahead of the election to set out its spending plans beyond... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2010 at Research Blogs
Defence and aerospace companies have started to look to the research councils for funding as the Ministry of Defence’s R&D budget has shrunk over the past few years. The MoD has cut early-stage research funding by 23 per cent over the last three years, according to the defence industry lobby group ADS, and the defence Green Paper, published earlier this month, was strangely silent on R&D issues. “The defence industry needs to be clear about possible routes to get research funded and brought through to market. We’re looking at spending right across the funding agencies, seeing what is relevant,” says Derek Marshall, director of policy at ADS. “The research councils have been given more direction to look at national security in their funding.” Marshall says defence companies are increasingly working with universities to find areas of “mutual interest” in which... Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2010 at Research Blogs
Oxford and Cambridge are set to benefit from the steeper funding ‘slope’ introduced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for quality related research funding (QR) in 2010-11, according to our preliminary analysis, but the overall changes will be small. On 1 February the funding council announced a new formula for distributing QR in a letter to universities in England and Northern Ireland. In response to the government’s desire for a greater concentration of research funding, the funding council has increased the weightings for 2*, 3* and 4* work, as judged by the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, from 1:3:7 to 1:3:9. The shift will benefit institutions that have a higher proportion of work in the 4* category in the 2008 RAE. First estimates from the Research Fortnight Benchmarking application show Oxford and Cambridge gaining about £4m a year between... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2010 at Research Blogs
Science minister Paul Drayson faced a hostile audience at a debate on the future of UK research at the Wellcome Trust in London last night. Surrounded by a panel of young researchers and science communicators, who at times seemed somewhat out of their depth, Drayson was interrogated by academics in the audience over impact assessment in research funding. The exchanges got heated at several points, as academics took the opportunity to vent their frustrations over impact at the minister. It didn’t help that Drayson and his opponents both seemed to conflate two different issues – HEFCE’s proposed impact assessment in the REF, and the impact section on the research councils’ grant applications. Drayson was correct when he tried to reassure researchers that they would not be required to predict the eventual impact of their work to get quality-related research funding... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2009 at Research Blogs