Page last updated at 10:58 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

Top scientists attack funds plan

Scientists say the value of research cannot be predicted

Some of the UK's top scientists are opposing plans to change the way university research is funded to give greater weight to economic benefits.

The academics, including six Nobel prize winners, say the plans by England's university funder Hefce would lead to major discoveries being missed.

Hefce wants funds for top quality research to be partly due to it showing a benefit to the economy or society.

The academics say research should not depend on market forces.

Some 13,500 academics have signed a petition from the University and College Union against the plans from Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) for what it calls the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

If implemented these plans would wreck the very basis of innovation in knowledge
Sally Hunt
UCU general secretary

The signatories come from the full range of academic disciplines and include 2,800 professors.

They include Nobel prize winners the chemist Sir Harold Kroto, molecular biologist and gene splitting expert Sir Richard Roberts and cancer expert Sir Tim Hunt.

A string of other well-known scientists including Professor Richard Dawkins and mathematician Sir John Ball have also signed the UCU's Stand Up for Research petition.

Professor of physics at the University of Liverpool, John Dainton, said introducing "impact as a criterion jeopardises, rather than enhances, the excellence of research and scholarship, and therefore reduces the return to all our paymasters, the UK taxpayer.

"I have no alternative but to warn of the damage of using 'impact' in such a way until this is understood.

"I would not be doing my duty both as a scientist and a tax payer if I didn't persist with my objections."

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: "Academic research should never be at the behest of market forces."

'Undermine scholarship'

She said the lesson of history was that some of the biggest breakthroughs had come from speculative research, and it was wrong to try to measure projects purely on their economic potential.

"If implemented these plans would wreck the very basis of innovation in knowledge.

"Academic research benefits all of society and we shouldn't be looking to reduce it to a series of 'impact indicators'.

"If the government wants Britain to be a world leader in innovation it should be listening to the thousands of academics who have signed our petition, not the siren calls of big business."

A Hefce spokesman said the meaning of "impact" in the proposals, which are being consulted on, was being interpreted too narrowly.

"The consultation makes it clear that the REF will provide additional recognition where excellent research delivers demonstrable benefits to society, public policy and services, culture, health, environment and the quality of life as well as the economy.

"Far from attacking curiosity-driven research, the REF will continue to support research of all kinds and the peer review of research outputs is at the heart of the exercise."

But philosophy professor at the University of Bristol, Sir James Ladyman, said the research proposals "undermined values essential to scholarship, in particular, the commitment to curiosity-driven research".

"It is not possible to predict the value of research or to assess its effects with any reliability," he added.

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