‘Competition out, collaboration in’ says Adrian Smith

Research Professional has today reported that Adrian Smith, the government’s director general of knowledge and innovation states funding cuts and increasing international competition will force UK higher education institutions to collaborate rather than compete.
Following cuts of around 40 per cent to the research equipment and infrastructure budget, restricted resources will prompt a “change of emphasis” he told the Science and Innovation 2011 conference in London on 21 June “I think the UK was served well for a few decades by the [Research Assessment Exercise] and things that drive dynamism and competition between institutions [but] to have competition you need at least two of something. Now there may be areas where you can only afford the equivalent of one, and that drives us from competition to collaboration.”
Smith firmly backed a policy of striving for “critical mass”, saying the government would encourage universities and businesses to group in clusters, such as in science parks, and to establish larger PhD training centres. “Analysis [shows] there are real issues of concentration and critical mass if we are trying to leverage the best efficiency,” he said. “This is not true of all topics, not medieval German poetry perhaps, but probably around big physics equipment.”
Smith also cited Scotland’s research pools—which receive large, multi-year grants from the Scottish Funding Council—as a good example. “We’re going to be moving to a system where those who thought of each other as national competitors work together,” he said. This is in spite of recent concerns over the pools’ future once their current funding from the SFC expires [see RF 15/6/11, p4, via link below].
Priority will go to funding streams that leverage further investment from industry and charities, he added. Making the most of limited resources will also mean looking increasingly for alignment “across disciplines, research councils and government departments, and the relevant bits of business and industry”, as with programmes such as Living With Environmental Change, he said.
Smith shrugged off any suggestion that directing research in multi-disciplinary collaborations was a threat to blue skies research, calling the debate “fuzzy nonsense”. “I don’t think you can spend £6 billion and not pay any attention to things people care about,” he said. “There’s a balance between challenges and maintaining national capacity and letting the brightest and best get on with it.”