Next week, we are expecting the government to launch their long-awaited Innovation & Research strategy. Still suffering whiplash from the HE White Paper, there are those in the sector feeling nervous about what might be coming. But do they need to be?
The HE White Paper promised this further strategy to address all those issues that were missing in that document – knowledge creation, business investment, skills and training, and the public sector in innovation and growth performance. Many have pointed out that the HE White Paper had failed through its lack of understating of how crucial research is to the sector, put most eloquently by Peter Scott in the Guardian in September.
The government has been pushing hard with its public sector reform programme, and higher education, like other sectors, is feeling bruised. Before the White Paper was published, I predicted that the government would take its policy to breaking point to enable them to row back in some areas later on but still achieve a net radical policy shift. There can be no doubt that the proposals were indeed radical – whether or not any will be watered down remains to be seen. When the Higher Education Bill begins its passage through Parliament next year, the opposition will do all it can to take it apart, and there may well be some parts that the government is willing to concede.
But what about research? There does not appear to be an appetite in government for another wholesale higher education policy revolution. Needless to say, there is no such appetite amongst the sector’s leadership either. David Willetts has largely swallowed the standard ministerial script on research policy, i.e. that research – particularly excellent research – is important for all the usual reasons, funding should follow excellence, and innovation is key to growth. The comparatively good funding settlement for research in the CSR bares this out.
So then, next week’s Innovation & Research Strategy will likely be a simple policy reference point for all research and innovation issues – joining it all together and putting on paper what mostly already exists. Of course there will be some extras thrown in – schemes to incentivise greater business involvement perhaps, and maybe something about the public sector. But no more revolution and nothing that’s going to hit the headlines.
There are of course plenty in the research community that would like to see a wholesale change of the way we fund and support research – from those on either side of the concentration debate and the sizable community of critics of the REF/RAE that span the whole political spectrum.
But the REF is happening and it’s hard to imagine any future government winding the clock back on this exercise. Initiatives focused on demonstrating impact draw the heaviest criticism, but from the government’s perspective, these are critical to ensuring the accountability of their investment in research. The REF ticks a very important box for this government in particular which is obsessed with demonstrating value for money and is clearly unafraid of embracing bureaucracies when it suits them, despite plenty of other conflicting rhetoric about liberalisation.
Those hoping for big changes in research policy will be disappointed next week. Everyone else will breathe a sigh of relief as they discover that there are some certainties after all.
The revolution continues in 2012.
UPDATE: It has been confirmed that the ‘Innovation & Research Strategy for Growth’ will launch on Thursday 8th December. They’ve added growth on the end of its title. That’s all the news I have…..