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LONDON—Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will take the lead in discussions of the country’s science and technology priorities as part of a shake-up in Britain’s approach to research. And one of the first items on her agenda is a request from scientists to create a network of interdisciplinary, university-based research centers. These are two of the features detailed in a series of documents released last month before the end of the British parliamentary session. On July 20

Aug 10, 1987
Jon Turney

LONDON—Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will take the lead in discussions of the country’s science and technology priorities as part of a shake-up in Britain’s approach to research. And one of the first items on her agenda is a request from scientists to create a network of interdisciplinary, university-based research centers.

These are two of the features detailed in a series of documents released last month before the end of the British parliamentary session.

On July 20 the government announced the formation of a new central policy group, the Advisory Council on Science and Technology, which will report to a committee of ministers chaired by Thatcher. A discussion paper from the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, published the same day, outlined proposals for reorganizing university research, including giving the highest priority for grants to 15 research universities yet to be selected. A second paper from the board, issued a few days later, asked the government to promise to fund these changes.

The week’s events put research and development significantly higher on the political agenda in Britain. It is not clear if that prominence will translate into greater support, however, as the government is likely to put its efforts rather than more generous funding. The main forum for setting priorities will be the new advisory council, which will supersede the existing Advisory Council on Applied Research and Development but retain its chairman, Sir Francis Tombs of Rolls-Royce. The gov eminent’s white paper, produced in response to a report on British R&D from the House of Lords select committee on science and technology, said “it should be amajor national priority to focus the effort of the research community and industry on increasing the economic effectiveness of our national investment in science and technology.

The paper repeats an earlier undertaking to reduce the proportion of state R&D cash—currently over half—going to the Ministry of Defense. But it also stresses that the primary responsibility for increasing funds lies with industry, and calls for a “substantial measure of concentration” of research in higher education institutions.

A Clearer Direction

The Advisory Board for the Research Councils’ report takes up the theme of concentration by argumg that much of university research is too small to be internationally competitive. The report says the average project grant to an academic group from the largest of the five U.K. research councils, for science and engineering, is only $70,000 over three years.

The report says current policies show “a lack of purposeful direction, nationally, in the redeployment of university research effort.” However, the report’s proposed new direction—with a three-fold classification of universities—has drawn a hostile response.

The board wants institutions to be designated in one of three ways: as top-level research centers, as mainly teaching-based, or as of intermediate status. Only the top band would get money for “substantial research activity across the range of fields.”

Critics charge that such a reform would mean rigid, unproductive divisions between university faculty. Sir Mark Richmond of Manchester University, chairman of the university vice-chancellors’ committee, said the three-tier system “would inhibit change and throttle new ideas which often arise in smaller centers.” The researchers’ group Save British Science has argued that the plan would lead to “ossification, sterility and inflexibility.”

Both groups were more enthusiastic about the hoard’s idea for university research centers, an approach being pursued by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The board would like to see the program built up quickly, with six centers set up in each of the next three years, at a coat of $130 million. Added to this is a request for new strategic research programs, new laboratories for research councils and a recent academic pay award, bringing to $160 million the amount sought on top of the $1 billion academic research budget next year. That total is expected to rise to $265 million by 1990.

The government will decide this issue later this year in general discussions of public spending, but the Science and Engineering Research Council is already pressing ahead with plans for the first new center on high-temperature superconductivity. Eleven universities have been asked to bid for this center, which should begin work in 1988.

The council hopes to solicit proposals in other fields. Areas considered most likely to gain support indude surface science, toxicology, crustal geology, food science, engineering design and new materials.

The ABRC sees the centers as the key to revitalize university research. Its chairman, Sir David Phillips, professor of molecular biophysics at Oxford University, backed up its spending plea with a letter to Education Minister Kenneth Baker arguing that the money is needed “to make a substantial start on the strategic reshaping of the science base, which we regard as essential.”

Turney is science editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement.