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Research and DEFRA's priorities

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A RECENT report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was less than complimentary about the way the Government uses science in decision-making, but, interestingly, cited defra as providing a good example of how things should be done (VR, November 25, 2006, vol 159, p 725). Since then, the Office of Science and Innovation (osi) has published the results of a review that examined defra's handling of science in more detail.1 Like the select committee's report, the osi review finds much to commend in defra's approach, explaining how, in a number of ways, it has taken a lead that other government departments should follow. Nevertheless, it does point to areas where improvements could be made. In the meantime, consideration of the report alongside a document from defra explaining its approach to evidence and innovation, which has also been published recently,2 raises concerns about the direction defra's research might take in the future.

The osi's report commends defra's evidence and innovation strategy as a ‘high level’ document covering the breadth of defra's interests, and for taking ‘a top-down and multidisciplinary approach to look at how to obtain the evidence and innovation needed to meet the department's needs’. defra's own document, meanwhile, explains how the department depends heavily on its research-based knowledge to underpin policy development and that this requires ‘strong processes to ensure defra's resources are used efficiently’. It also notes that it aims to ‘realign defra's r&d investment with departmental priorities and maximise the value of this investment by cooperating with other funders.’

It clearly makes sense to set priorities and match research spending to departmental needs, but what is worrying, given the long-term nature of science, is just how quickly priorities can change. It is only six months since the Secretary of State at defra, Mr David Miliband, began publicly to extol the benefits of ‘one planet living’ as a means of moving towards a more sustainable future. However, the concept has already found its way into his department's evidence and innovation strategy, with the latest document describing it as ‘defra's mission’. The document notes that ‘We have also changed defra's r&d budget allocations in favour of our environmental priorities.’

Priorities can and should change, but changes need to be considered carefully, not least because important activities can be dropped as a result. This point is recognised in the osi report, which notes that, ‘While the need for defra to re-prioritise its work from time to time is fully acknowledged, including the need to “sun-set” [sic] some areas altogether … the department needs to recognise that in some areas it is a major customer for scientific advice and that, in areas where it is required, scientific expertise needs to be built up and maintained.’ This, it points out, is a particular concern in areas where there is a need to be able to respond to emergencies.

It also makes sense to use funds efficiently and to cooperate with other funders of science to avoid areas of overlap. The danger here is that, with pressure on budgets and different funding bodies pursuing different priorities, important activities may fail to be funded because they fall between two stools. This point, too, seems to have been recognised in the osi report, which notes that ‘Departments that commission a significant amount of science have a duty to play a part in maintaining the scientific expertise and infrastructure on which they rely, now or in the foreseeable future. Departments should not be expected to supplant the Research Councils, but neither can they expect the skills they need to appear without their contribution, both strategic and financial.’

Such considerations can be all-important in some areas of animal disease research, which require specialist facilities that can be expensive to maintain. In some instances, it may not be possible to accommodate a shortfall in funding by shaving a few pounds off the budget; the choice, rather, may be between finding the money or closing the facility down.

In the week the osi published its report, the trade union Prospect published the results of a survey it had conducted among scientists working in both the public and private sectors which, the union says, found that only 58 per cent of scientists expected to stay in science while 42 per cent were ‘fearful for the future’.3 This followed a report from Prospect earlier this year which claimed that budgetary cuts, coupled with the Government's ‘obsession with privatisation and reviews’, was putting defra's science at risk (VR, September 16, 2006, vol 159, p 369). According to Prospect, ‘The current chopping and changing of research priorities according to the fashion of the moment bears no regard for the overall impact on the national science base. When the next crisis on the scale of bse or foot-and-mouth rocks the uk we may not be able to guarantee that the expertise to fight it is still in place.’

The Government is right to develop science strategy at ‘high level’. At the same time, it needs to have a feel for what might be happening on the ground.

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