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William Cullerne Bown
Founder and Owner of, Research Fortnight and Research Europe.
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This post is from Dr Maria Viskaduraki, a biostatistician at the University of Leicester, and Diamanto Mamuneas, a PhD student at the Royal Veterniary College In October 2009, David Nutt was forced to step down from his position as head of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after counselling the then government against reclassification of Cannabis from Class C to Class B (advice which the government ignored). Shortly after, the BBC reported Nutt's words; "If scientists are not allowed to engage in the debate at this interface (between scientific advice and policy making) then you devalue their contribution to policy making and undermine a major source of carefully considered and evidence-based advice." It is unusual to witness scientists defending the value and importance of science in the public sphere – especially when it comes to politics –... Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2013 at Research Blogs
David Nutt has just been awarded the 2013 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science. Nutt, you may recall, is famous for being sacked from his position as the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after disputing government decisions on the classification of cannibis and ecstacy. In my view, spelt out in detail at the time, Nutt did not so much stand up for science as use science to prop up his own worthy but thoroughly non-scientific position. So here's my question for the four judges who gave Nutt the award and for the others - from Benda Maddox to Mark Walport - who have allowed their names to be used to endorse this decision: "Exactly what science is it that you think David Nutt stood up for?" Continue reading
Posted Nov 4, 2013 at Research Blogs
Whether she ever gets to be Prime Minister or not, Theresa May's speech on Sunday deserves to be remembered. For 30 years, economic orthodoxy in the Conservative party has been in thrall to the convictions of Margaret Thatcher. But Sunday looks likely to be remembered as the day the party finally moved on. If so, Conservatives will have David Willetts to thank for it. For more than a year, Willetts has waged an intellectual and political campaign to slaughter the muddled yet sacred cows of the 1980s such as "no picking winners". It has taken courage, for at the beginning he understandably feared a backlash from the right of his party. Thanks to grammar schools, he knows how pitilessly any mis-step may be punished. But the backlash has not materialised and Sunday was the day his argument for an industrial... Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2013 at Research Blogs
Usually when there's a big speech on science from a minister, I sit down and read it carefully and tease out the issues it raises. But today I made the mistake of actually going to listen to the Chancellor give his first speech on science. This made a powerful impression on me and threatens to overwhelm my usual textual caution. So I thought I'd post a quick reflection now and then come back to the full speech in a day or two. The most revealing part of the morning was the Q&A at the end, because here we got a vivid impression of the man himself and how he sees science and technology fitting into his economic responsibilities. I was struck by how engaged he is. He has clearly been thinking about the issues and - at the right level... Continue reading
Posted Nov 9, 2012 at Research Blogs
The longer growth remains elusive, the greater the pressure on the government to make us believe that they know how to get things going again. Critical to that job of persuasion is credibility in hi-tech. As Vince Cable delivers what has been billed as a major speech on growth, here's how the key players currently stand: Vince Cable - From his letter to David Cameron, leaked in February, we know he favours a strong industrial policy. David Willetts - In two long and thoughtful speeches this year, he has slaughtered the Conservative Party's scared cow of "no picking winners" and set out a moderately right-wing case for what he calls an "industrial strategy" and which the rest of us would - on the evidence so far - call a "technology strategy". George Osborne - No sign yet that he intends... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2012 at Research Blogs
Back in February, Vince Cable set out his Liberal Democrat view of the need for a tech-oriented industrial strategy, in his famous leaked letter. Now it is David Willetts turn. Join me as I discover whether the Conservatives are ready to join Labour and the Lib Dems in backing the thing Margaret Thatcher and three decades of Treasury mandarins have abhorred - an industrial policy. *** What's the good of government? Minister of State for Universities and Science (attending Cabinet) 24 May 2012, University of East Anglia [Check against delivery] The simple action of cutting and pasting this speech into my word processor has alerted me to the sheer length of it. 5429 words I am told. This, and the title, are raising my hopes. Back in January, I described how Willetts was gently leading the Conservatives into new terrain... Continue reading
Posted Jun 3, 2012 at Research Blogs
"So we will continue to campaign for the key recommendations of this report: government should come clean about its financial chicanery and open the books, secure the much-vaunted loan repayment terms in statute, and restore direct grant funding of universities for mainstream teaching activity. The battle for education is far from over, and these are its new fronts." These were the words of the NUS president, Liam Burns, in his foreward to the new report on the government's higher education reforms by Andrew McGettigan for the Intergenerational Foundation. They are unambiguous. The report outlines some problems and some remedies. And both the analysis and the prescription for what the government should do are being endorsed by the NUS. Some 18 months after suffering the biggest defeat in its history, the NUS has dusted itself down and worked out what the... Continue reading
Posted May 20, 2012 at Research Blogs
Vince Cable's letter to David Cameron about industrial policy has stirred up a storm over the Royal Bank of Scotland. But banking was only number four on Cable's list of priorities. At the top was support for hi-tech. Join me as I decode what Cable was really trying to achieve in his letter... *** PRIME MINISTER. DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER INDUSTRY POLICY Department for Business Innovation & Skills The Rt Hon Vince Cable MP 8 February 2012 That date gives us the context - this is preparation for the Budget and its core is the age old battle for a bigger departmental budget. I know you have been giving some thought to the subject of industry policy, as I have, and I want to share my views with you. From Vince we expect that kind of thinking. But Dave? Michael Heseitine... Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2012 at Research Blogs
The annual grant letter sent to HEFCE by BIS today includes the statement: "we are reiterating our overarching warning that we may transfer HEFCE grant for 2012-13 or future years back to the Department to meet unanticipated pressures, such as student support costs resulting from any over recruitment". This reminds us that, for all the measures HEFCE has in place to deter over-recruitment, BIS is concerned that too many students may still end up demanding student loans and ratcheting up the national debt. This problem of keeping total spending on undergraduates (including loans) under control may become a more pressing issue if the government does indeed scrap the promised higher education bill, for three reasons. First, as Andrew McGettigan points out, without new legislation there is nothing to stop any suitable student demanding a loan from the government. Second, as... Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2012 at Research Blogs
Question. If the promised higher education bill is toast, then how much of the agenda laid out in the white paper actually remains possible within the existing legislative framework? For example: Are there limits to how far David Willetts can push marketisation policies like AAB and core-margin? What can still be done for private providers? How far can HEFCE's remit be changed by reinterpreting existing texts? Can HEFCE stand by while universities go bust, especially the many new universities who are financially vulnerable to the market but were established as higher education corporations? Can HEFCE continue to impose its will on those universities to whom it no longer provides much money? Answers (and more questions) please in the comments section. Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2012 at Research Blogs
I have waited a long time for this speech. Back in October 2010 I gave David Willetts a bunch of white lilies and roses. That was the day the Coalition announced that science would get a flat cash settlement, with the deep cuts reserved for capital spending. It was also the day George Osborne started name-checking science in his plans for growth. And the day David Willetts said, "I'm a big fan of the TSB." Reading the runes I concluded that the Conservatives had turned a corner in their thinking on science and technology in the modern economy. Hence the flowers. Looking back at what I wrote then, it was disturbingly prescient: "Underneath the surface something very important has happened. "Since the election there has been a question mark where the Coalition’s strategy for growth should be. George Osborne managed... Continue reading
Posted Jan 16, 2012 at Research Blogs
I agree with all that, except putting the root cause down to "debate". The government wants to minimise its lending to students. Hence it has a policy aimed at driving down fees. That seems much more important to me.
OFFA has revealed today that just FOUR universities have cut the cost of their first degrees to squeeze in under the £7,500 tuition fee threshold set by the government. The four are the University of Chester, the University of Cumbria, the Institute of Education and Teesside University. Sparsholt College is the one college to have reduced its fees. These are the only institutions to have cut the price of their main undergradaute degrees for 2012 despite the introduction of the new "core-margin" policy intended to create a competitive market in higher education and drive down fees. While 24 universities have agreed revised access agreements with the Office for Fair Access, most of them have only cut the cost of foundation courses or revised the subsidies they offer students. Bursaries (which don't reduce average fee levels) are out, fee waivers (which... Continue reading
Posted Dec 2, 2011 at Research Blogs
The Autumn Statement today has confirmed not only hundreds of millions of new money for science, but an increased prominence for science in the growth narrative being developed by the government. That bodes well for the two announcements we are waiting for before Christmas, publication of both an overarching Innovation and Research Strategy and a plan for improving the environment for translational medical research in the UK. More generally, it tells the science community that the door is open, even in an age of austerity. Go to government with a convincing case and it is possible to win increases in funding. In his speech, George Osborne said, "Today we’re confirming almost half a billion pounds for scientific projects, from supercomputing and satellite technology to a world-beating animal health laboratory." The almost £500m seems to be composed of: £200m for the... Continue reading
Posted Nov 29, 2011 at Research Blogs
I agree that the question of the persistence of policy is a big issue, for UCL here and everyone else. I suppose one question is, if UCL and local authorities spend tens of millions building a new campus, will any future government dare deprive them of the revenue they are expecting to make the sums add up? "Smoothing" comes to mind...
The announcement by UCL that it is to open a second campus, in east London, will send a chill down the spine of other elite universities in the UK. Malcolm Grant told the FT today that the plan is for a big increase in research activity. Undergraduate numbers would increase only "at the margins". But the provoist's soothing words won't help the leaders of other Russell Group universities sleep any easier. A huge new campus in Newham could, once it is built, turn out to mean capacity for many thousands more undergraduates at UCL. And thanks to the AAB+ market initiated by the government, UCL will be able to fill all those places with students paying the full £9,000 a year. The losers will be those universities, mainly in the Russell Group, that are slightly further down the list of... Continue reading
Posted Nov 23, 2011 at Research Blogs
Vince Cable's conference speech But the big long term question is: how does the country earn a living in future? Natural resources? The oil money was squandered. Metal bashing? Mostly gone to Asia. Banking? Been there, done that. What is left? Actually quite a lot. People. Skilled and educated people. High tech manufacturing of which we already have a great deal. Creative industries, IT and science based industries and professional services. In my job I meet many outstanding, world class, British based companies. But we need more companies and more jobs in the companies we have. It is my job as Business Secretary to support business growth. And this knowledge based economy requires more high quality people from FE, HE and vocational training. Here, we have a problem. Businesses cannot grow because of a shortage of trained workers while our... Continue reading
Posted Oct 14, 2011 at Research Blogs
Labour's new BIS team is shaping up like this: Shadow Business Secretary - Chuka Umanna Shadow science spokeswoman - Chi Onwurah (continuing the role she had before) Shadow higher education spokeswoman - Shabana Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Ladywood Other MPs on the team: Ian Wright, Toby Perkins, Ian Murray, Gordon Marsden. Leading in the Lords: Wilf Stevenson and Tony Young continue. So Mahmood, elected in 2010 and pictured left, replaces Gareth Thomas in the universities brief. Thanks to my Research Fortnight colleague Miriam Frankel for the update. Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2011 at Research Blogs
On Friday, Chuka Umanna became Labour's new Shadow Business Secretary, up against not one but two from the Cabinet table - Vince Cable and David Willetts. On Sunday he published an interesting think piece on his new brief. This gives added depth to some of the big themes outlined in Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour Party Conference last month, and starts to root those themes in academic work. In fact, if like me you've been wondering what Miliband was really trying to say in his speech, then this article has a surprising amount to reveal. Let's see if the arguments stack up. *** Britain needs a better capitalism by Chuka Umanna 9 October 2011 Britain needs a better capitalism. This echoes the line taken by Miliband in his conference speech. It is simpler and more concrete than anything Miliband... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2011 at Research Blogs
We know you get Politics. And Law. And Rhetoric. But there are a lot of MPs like that. Do you also get Science? And Engineering? And Economics? And Social Sciences, the Arts, Humanities? Not to mention tuition fees and university finance. Because David Willetts does. And even, in a vague hifalutin I-could-if-I-had-the-time-but-the-banks-you-know sort of way does Vince Cable. And those are the two people sitting in Cabinet who you're going to have to dog it out with now if you want to win over academics. Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2011 at Research Blogs
The pharmaceuticals industry is re-wiring itself. Gone - literally in the case of Pfizer at Sandwich - are the days of magnificent isolation, of company R&D labs that are a world unto themselves. Instead, we are getting a networked approach. Pharma firms are trying to immerse themselves in a sea of brilliance. Partly that external inspiration and insight lies in academia, partly in smaller biotech firms. It is both globally dispersed and concentrated in clusters. And in practical terms, some of the important re-wiring looks like this: This is an independent hi-tech "incubator" on GSK's Stevenage campus, its global R&D HQ, that I visited recently. It is intended to support small, innovative firms. The attractions for outfits that can show they are interesting enough to get in are substantial: • bang next to the GSK R&D buildings - literally a... Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2011 at Research Blogs
Yesterday I argued that with growth rising to the top of the political agenda, scientists, hi-tech industries and other parts of the knowledge economy have a lot more political leverage than they realise. Today, thanks to Stian Westlake over at NESTA, I have some evidence. Here are a few slides on "innovation" taken from some attitudinal polling compiled by Frank Lunz - Republican strategist, frequent guest on Fox news and a man who advised the Bushes to emphasise the "lack of scientific certainty" in the climate change debate. The report is based on polling done in the US in 2007 for state governors, so its relevance to the UK is suggestive rather than compelling. Nonetheless, its suggestions are striking. 1. Is innovation important to voters when they think about the economy? 2. Is the government responsible for innovation? Note: the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 5, 2011 at Research Blogs
The £50m that George Osborne has today announced to support further research into graphene is doubly welcome. Our researchers need the money, and it shows the government can move quickly when science itself senses a genuine revolution with the potential to transform industries. But when you look at the politics of the announcement, you can see that science is selling itself absurdly cheaply. Reading the Chancellor's speech, it is clear that the role of the graphene announcement is to bolster the government's growth credentials, and in particular its hi-tech credentials. Here's what he said: "My children are eight and ten years old. I don’t want them to read about how China has just built the world’s most advanced aircraft; how India is leading the globe in computer design; and have to say to my children: that used to be Britain.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2011 at Research Blogs
In his speech today, Ed Miliband told the Labour Party Conference: "Three thousand of our brightest young people, at state schools, get the grades to go to our most competitive universities. But they never go. That can't be right." Oxford, Cambridge and co and their admissions policies are still in Labour's crosshairs. Continue reading
Posted Sep 27, 2011 at Research Blogs
@Andrew It would be great if you could post some calculations on your blog of what a more realistic price tag would be for this policy.