April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Last week, I travelled to UCL to meet Imran Khan, head of CaSE. Imran is an alumnus of the Imperial College Science Communication MSc course and was previously a researcher for former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. As Director of CaSE, Imran deals with a whole range of issues surrounding science policy. Today, Imran talks more about Government policy on science funding…

AP:       One of your organisations’ roles seems to be campaigning for public funding for science — or at least that seemed to be a major part of your role during the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review last October. If this is one of your major roles, would you then — generally speaking — say that parties of the left, or centre-left, are more receptive to your calls than parties of the centre and the right?

Another good question! CaSE is, and has always tried to be, a non-partisan organisation, for obvious reasons. If we were to be identified with one particular party, that would make it more difficult for us to influence other ones.

I’ve only been in this post for a year, but the arguments we’ve been making to the Coalition seem to have generally been well received. Of course, if you want to define the Coalition as ‘right’ or ‘left’ is another matter, as you’ve got parties from both sides. But the definite impression we’ve had is that the politicians in the two parties which make up the Coalition, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, do understand the argument. We’ve had a period of public funding being slashed across the board and science — although it’s still having to deal with both real-term and cash cuts — has got off considerably better than some other departments. We hear from Government ministers and civil servants that this is because people at the top of the Coalition understand that you’ve got to have public funding in place if you want to leverage private-sector investment — businesses aren’t going to step in unless you incentivise them to do it.

On the whole, I’m not really sure about the comparison. I suppose we’ve had a long period of sustained public investment under the Labour party, but you could argue that it’s been a period of plenty. Maybe the Conservatives would have done the same thing had they been in power – who knows?

AP:       So, having just touched on the idea of using public funding to seed private investment, I’d like to move on to talk about the ‘British disease’*. Is this really such an issue here in Britain today? And, if it is, what do you think can be done about it?

(*The ‘British Disease’ refers to the notion that Great Britain has traditionally been poor at translating its academic excellence, particularly in terms of its top quality universities, into economic gains for the nation)

The reason that I got into science policy to begin with and ultimately ended up working here at CaSE was that I was really passionate about science. Yet, day-to-day now, there’s very little science in my job at all; it’s all things like economics, schools policy, etc. Here at CaSE, everyone in the office has a really major emphasis on trying to make sure that all of our policies are evidence based. But, because it’s not science, there’s a limit to how far you can take that. And, this isn’t just in terms of CaSE, rather it’s in terms of the whole science policy establishment in general.

I think “the British disease” does rather fall victim to this. You hear a lot of people talking about it…a lot of anecdotes about how the UK’s just not as good as the US, Japan or Germany. However, when you actually talk to people who work in the area — people who work in knowledge transfer and other related areas — they say the UK’s pretty good.

Because of the light in which Britain has historically been cast, with people always saying that Britain just isn’t good at commercialising research, there’s really been a lot of work done over the last five-to-ten years to try and reverse that. In fact, we’ve now got to a stage where you hear of researchers coming in from the USA saying how much they wish they had something like the research councils’ impact teams over in the States..

So, I’m not actually sure that the British disease is real. However, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t carry on trying to improve the commercialisation of research and trying to make sure that we do have the private sector investing in research here. Of course, there is no silver bullet. The thing which I always find — whenever you try and solve a problem this complex — is that the only way you can do it is to talk to the stakeholders. The thing that I would always come back to is talking to industry, talking to the researchers on the front line and trying to figure out with the success stories we’ve had what the enablers have been. Equally, where things have not been working, what are the barriers? The only people who can answer these questions are the people who themselves are trying to do it.