Monday, 12 September 2016

Mapping Regional Strengths

A lot has happened since July 2015 when the then Chancellor, George Osborne talked about working with universities and other partners to map regional strengths. The article below, published in March this year, looked at their plans, and the report from the Council for Science and Technology that had just done such a mapping exercise. What with Brexit, the HE White Paper, the Stern and Nurse Reviews, well: attention has been elsewhere. Still, an interesting reminder of how far we've travelled in six months - for better or worse. 
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In July last year chancellor George Osborne announced in his summer budget: “The government will invite universities, cities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and businesses to map strengths and identify potential areas of strategic focus for different regions through a series of science and innovation audits.”

Two days later, Osborne and business minister Sajid Javid’s productivity plan was published, using almost exactly the same wording: “The government will therefore invite universities, cities, local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and business to work with the government to map the strengths of different regions through a series of science and innovation audits.”

If repetition is any indication of desire, then the government was desperate for some science and innovation audits. They topped the list it left by the fireplace for Father Christmas, circled in magic marker with lots of arrows pointing towards them. Just in case he was in any doubt.

In November, unable to wait for Christmas to produce the goods, the government took its first step towards making its dream come true. A call for expressions of interest set out the parameters for these audits.

For fear we may have forgotten, the call quotes science minister Jo Johnson parroting Osborne and Javid: “It is crucial that the UK supports excellence wherever it is found. The government will therefore invite universities, cities, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and business to work with the government to map the strengths of different regions through a series of science and innovation audits.”

Got that?

Interestingly, the call recognises that, to undertake the audits, consortia should make use of the “many sources of useful data that can contribute to this evidence base, for example, the many rich datasets built up through administering the UK’s research and innovation funding systems.” However, it recognised that “although increasingly accessible, these databases are insufficiently exploited by government or external users and are currently held separately by each funder.”

It seems odd, therefore, that neither the call, nor the productivity plan nor the budget that preceded it, made mention of the work of the Council for Science and Technology. Between January and June 2015 the CST had been doing a mapping exercise “to build a picture of the whole research landscape in the UK and to develop a stronger evidence base”. Its purpose was “to inform future strategic decision-making and help the UK to maintain and develop its excellence in research”. Just the kind of thing the audits were intended to do, one would think.

Last month the CST produced The UK Knowledge and Research Landscape: A report on available resources. There was no fanfare around its publication. It slipped out, with a somewhat cursory press release. And, in some ways, one can understand why. Jane Elliott, chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council and chairwoman of the group that wrote the report, acknowledged that it was “the first step” in the process. There were no big reveals, no major surprises, no paradigm shifts.
Indeed, in some ways it felt a little half-hearted. A list of various datasets has the whiff of a Google-search about it. It felt random rather than comprehensive. For instance, no mention is made of the work done by Loughborough University in its report The New Regionalisation of Higher Education. And some of the typos in the CST’s report—such as James Wilsdon being referred to both by his correct name and as James Wilson in consecutive paragraphs—suggested that the full rigour of Whitehall and Swindon had not been brought to bear on it.

It is, in essence, a curious beast. Given the importance, the repeated importance, of the science and innovation audits, this is surprising. One would image that a baseline survey of the sources of data available to inform these audits would be a priority rather than an afterthought. Equally surprising is the fact that no mention is made of the CST in any of the trumpeted announcements of the audits. It smacks, slightly, of oversight.

I hope I am wrong about this. I do think the auditing of regional research strengths is an interesting and worthwhile endeavour. It would be a shame to unnecessarily duplicate work or undermine the endeavour through a lack of commitment. I hope I am wrong, but my fear is that I’m not.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in March 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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