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Industrial strategy must boost R&D intensity

The first report from the Industrial Strategy Commission has said that the government’s industrial strategy needs to take an integrated view of UK science, research and innovation.

The report, published on 10 July, highlighted science, research and innovation as one of seven themes that the strategy must be built on.

The commission, formed by academics based at the universities of Manchester and Sheffield, was launched in March to carry out an independent analysis of the industrial strategy being prepared by the government.

The strategy must seek to address the large regional disparities in public and private R&D, as well correct the UK’s low R&D intensity, the commission has said. The UK will need local delivery mechanisms for research funding and new research institutions located in weaker regions. 

The intensity of the UK research effort is too low and an essential aim of the industrial strategy should be to correct this, the report said. This must be done in a way that considers innovation in both public and private sectors, and the whole spectrum from basic to translational research.

The strategy must balance support for discovery research, research to support government priorities, and the development and commercialisation of research. It must also provide a framework for science and innovation investment, the commission said.

The other six proposed themes are: a long-term set of institutions to determine, implement and monitor the strategy; recognition of the importance of place and the need to increase growth and productivity everywhere; a strong competition regime; an increased investment rate; a comprehensive effort to improve skills, and effective use of the state’s purchasing and regulating power.

In her introduction, Kate Barker, the commission's chairwoman, said that the most important conclusion of the report was that the UK needed a set of institutions that would “ensure public and private sector bodies can plan on the basis of confidence in a shared long-term vision”.

To be effective, the strategy must not be the property of a single government department; its goals must be shared across Whitehall departments, she said.

The report also recommends that an independent monitoring body should be set up to hold policymakers accountable for the success of the strategy. 

Barker added that the recent election had resulted in political fragility against a backdrop of growing economic concerns following the EU referendum. “Now more than ever we need long-term strategic economic management to enable the UK to respond to current challenges and invest in our people, places and industries to achieve greater future prosperity,” she said.

 

UK > Politics > Whitehall

 

Defra wants ‘porous’ boundary with scientific world

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs plans to gain access to the best advice from across all disciplines to inform its policymaking, a conference was told.

On 10 July, the Royal Society published its report on the Science for Defra conference held at the society at the end of March.

At the conference, Clare Moriarty, Defra’s permanent secretary, outlined the vision for an ‘open’ Defra, where there were no barriers to getting all interested parties together and talking through decisions in an informed way. This would set a precedent for other government departments, according to the report.

There are two immediate areas in which Defra will explore the ways to create a porous boundary between the department and scientists.

These are to lead work demonstrating the links between the natural environment and human health and to examine the potential for, and application of, an approach to environmental systems modelling.

The conference heard that demands on policymakers' time could sometimes limit how much they could engage with academics when making decisions.

Defra has around 30 independent science advisory groups, the report says. Working with those individuals who are appointed advisers and intermediaries gives access to their networks but there is a need to make this work more effectively. 

Widening the circle of subject experts in certain areas and creating ways to integrate external researchers into Defra, so they can gain experience of the policy environment, would also be important in future, the report says.

The relationship between agriculture and the natural environment was a recurrent theme at the conference, with several suggestions that the 25-year plan for the environment should work in tandem with the new agricultural policy framework after Britain leaves the EU, the report says.

 

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UK > Research Excellence Framework

 

REF panel leaders announced

The four people who will chair the main panels for the next Research Excellence Framework have been chosen by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

In an announcement on 10 July, the Higher Education Funding Council for England named John Iredale, David Price, Jane Millar and David Birch, respectively, as chairmen of panels A, B, C and D, which cover the life sciences, natural sciences, social sciences and arts and humanities, for REF 2021.

John Iredale is appointed to lead Panel A: medicine, health and life sciences. He is pro vice-chancellor for health at the University of Bristol.

David Price is appointed to lead Panel B: physical sciences, engineering and mathematics. He is vice-provost for research at University College London and chairs the Forum for Responsible Metrics.

Jane Millar, professor of social policy at the University of Bath and a member of the Academy of Social Science’s governing council, is appointed to lead Panel C on social sciences.

Dinah Birch, pro vice-chancellor for research and impact at the University of Liverpool, is appointed to lead Panel D for the arts and humanities.

The main panels will provide leadership and guidance to the sub-panels that undertake the REF assessment, HEFCE said. The chairmen's role will be to advise the funding bodies on the initial decisions and on the further development of the framework. They will take up their roles later in the year, once the results of the REF consultations have been announced and further appointments to the REF panels have been made.

Kim Hackett, REF manager, said the four all brought “significant research expertise and experience of research assessment to these roles”. 

 

UK > Publishing

 

Better coordination needed in open data policies

There is considerable inconsistency in open research data policies between funding bodies, charities and universities in the UK, despite recent efforts to bring them in line, a report has found.

The Open Data Task Force, made up of representatives of all the main UK research organisations and chaired by Pam Thomas, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Warwick, has published a report into the infrastructure that supports open research data.

In 2016 the HIgher Education Funding Council for England, Research Councils UK, Universities UK and the Wellcome Trust set out a series of principles for working with research data in the Open Research Data Concordat. They outlined the steps needed for the development of a consistent set of research data policies and strategies for the UK.

However, the continuing lack of a common template impedes understanding and take-up, the task force's report says. Although the consensus between government, funders, universities, research institutions and publishers is that data produced by publicly funded researchers should be regarded as a public good, and that maximising openness brings benefits including facilitating best research practice, this is not reflected in a set of harmonised or co-ordinated policies in the UK.

The task force is also not yet clear how funders’ policies relate to wider government policy work on research and innovation.

Journals and publishers have a powerful role to play in influencing the behaviours of researchers, the report says, but most journals and publishers have made little or no progress in these areas.

Concerns about reproducibility and replicability of scientific findings have been growing for some time, the report says. It is often argued that making data openly available, along with associated code and documentation, is one of the important ways that concerns might be addressed and is another way in which journals could have a crucial role.

The task force also says it is still often the case that researchers do not trust other researchers’ data. The requirements for quality assurance can be “multi-layered, difficult and time-consuming, and responsibilities for ensuring that data does indeed conform to basic quality standards are frequently not clearly defined”, it said.

Furthermore, it is frequently unclear to both creators and users of research data what has been or will be done to ensure that data conforms to basic quality standards, and by whom, according to the report.

The Open Data Task Force was set up following a  report commissioned by universities and science minister Jo Johnson from Adam Tickell, chairman of the UK Open Access Co-ordination Group, which was published in 2016.

 

UK > Charities & Societies

 

Time to be ingenious

The Royal Academy of Engineering is seeking applications for funding to support projects that will broaden public engagement with engineering.

The academy opened its Ingenious programme to fund projects for diverse audiences across the whole of the UK on 6 July.

It is offering between £3,000 and £30,000 for projects that “connect members of the public, of any age, with engineers and tell the story of the wide range of UK engineering”.

The academy said it wants to inspire creative public engagement with engineering projects, motivate engineers to share their stories and develop their communication and engagement skills, and raise awareness of the diversity, nature and impact of engineering among people of all ages and backgrounds. 

A particular goal is to provide opportunities for engineers to engage with members of the public from groups that are under-represented in engineering.

Previous projects have included festival workshops, online competitions for schoolchildren, and the development of films telling the story of the country’s engineering pioneers.

The academy says that for this round it wants “even more creative and imaginative ideas for projects” to run from 2018.

The deadline for applications is 18 September. 

 

UK > Careers

 

Social class compounds gender bias in STEM subjects

A woman’s social background will play an important role in whether she chooses to study science and engineering subjects at university, a study has found.

Writing for a London School of Economics and Political Science blog, Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster, a PhD student at the Institute for Education at University College London, said her research showed that disadvantaged women were much less likely to study science, technology, engineering and maths at university.

A “vast amount of research” already shows that women generally are less likely to study STEM subjects and this ultimately leads to a divided workforce, Mcmaster said. Graduates in these subjects  will often receive higher than average higher salaries and so this imbalance may make an important contribution to the gender pay gap, she added.

Mcmaster analysed data from a nationally representative cohort of more than 4,000 students in England. The data showed that while young men were drawn towards STEM subjects regardless of their parents’ social position, young women from less advantaged social backgrounds were significantly less likely to study these subjects.

For the most advantaged third of students, there was no gender gap. “This suggests that whatever is holding young women back from studying STEM is only acting as a barrier to relatively disadvantaged young women,” Mcmaster said.

She said another project in which researchers interviewed more than 70 students throughout their schooling found that girls studying physics tended to be from highly educated and well-off families, often with parents also working in STEM jobs.

As students are not only stereotyped by gender but also their class background and family income, disadvantaged female students would likely need to have great resilience to deal with these multiple stereotypes.

To combat these issues, young women from disadvantaged groups need improved career advice, as well as seeing a change in the culture, McMaster said. There needs to be more representation of ‘every-day’ female scientists “to combat the myths that only extremely academically gifted people are suited to science and maths”.

 

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