Think-Lab Thinking

Our Thinking

As well as helping others, we like to come up with bright ideas of our own.  Below you’ll find our blog posts that outline some of our current thinking. We’d love to hear what you think too!


Beyond the ring fence

Focusing on about funding for basic research is not enough. Unless the academic community engages with the debate on industrial strategy, the spending review will leave research and innovation on the margins, writes Think-Lab’s Melanie Smallman in this week’s Research Fortnight.

Over the next few weeks the UK’s science community will be lobbying hard to protect the science budget, in advance of the government’s June interim spending review for 2015/16.  Already the Presidents of the four national academies have launched a statement ‘Fuelling Prosperity’, calling on the government to secure the ringfence on the science budget and provide a stable investment framework for research over the next ten years.  And rightly so. The evidence that is a driver of the economy is compelling and growing.

But while the discussions within the academies are focused on how much funding should be directed where, following the economic crisis, politicians from all parties are interested in much bigger issues – what the future of the UK economy will look like and what will be our relationship with the rest of the world. These discussions might be termed “Industrial Strategy” or “Foreign Policy”, but they are about the future of science, technology and innovation as much as they are about anything else.  These are the discussions that will determine whether the UK becomes a hi-tech innovation based economy, a low-wage manufacturing nation or a country dominated by the service industry.  And these are the decisions that will set the UK on a trajectory that will shape the nature of UK research, development and innovation for decades to come.

Take the current debate about Europe – and Britain’s place within it.  While it might appear to be about wooing UKIP voters, one half of the government is serious about withdrawing from the UK’s biggest export market and from a significant funder of UK research.  What would that mean for multinational companies looking to site their head office and attract the best talent?  Why would they choose the UK over Germany or France?  And what would happen to UK research without the 3.7bn Euros it has received from Europe’s FP7 in the last five years?

Even more interesting and challenging is the debate about industrial strategy and our future economy however. Because while this is new territory for the scientific community, it is also new territory for many politicians and economists.  And there are very few answers yet.  For the last 30 years or more both economic and innovation policy thinking has been almost exclusively dominated by free-market ideology, whereby the best role for the state (after funding expensive basic research) is to get out of the way.  The credit crunch demonstrated very painfully that markets alone aren’t the answer however.  So whether it is David Cameron talking about responsible capitalism, or Ed Miliband talking about pre-distribution, it amounts to the same – suddenly, for first time in more than a generation, active industrial strategy, and a role for the state in markets, is on the table.  This means that more than funding levels and % of GDP are up for grabs.  Research from political science into alternative economic models – such as Peter Hall and David Soskice’s work on varieties of capitalism – suggest that it is factors such as private sector financial regimes, industrial relations and models of company ownership that play the most significant roles in determining the types of industries that develop.  In Sweden, for instance, the relationship between the workforce the employers and the state is thought to have been significant in building an innovation-based economy – as the trade unions drove up wages, companies moved towards more skilled, hi-tech industry in order to justify the high wage bills and the state stepped in to provide the training necessary.  Financial systems appear to have played a similarly important role in other countries such as Germany, where access to finance that was not entirely dependent upon current profits allowed companies to invest in projects that generated returns in the longer term.   Yet despite these matters having clear and lasting implications for UK research, innovation and development, they are areas where the scientific community are entirely silent.

This is of course unsurprising – and entirely forgivable.  Such issues have been outside the scope of most science policy thinking until relatively recently. While there is some relevant research being carried out in universities and think-tanks, it is not always easy to access and there are gaps.  In the longer-term, there is lots of new research to be done.  But as a first step, the academies should set up a policy commission on science and the economy/industrial strategy, bringing together scientists, economists and science policy experts, to move the debate beyond funding and the economic contribution of science, into more fundamental issues about the innovation society. If science and innovation is such a driver of the economy, then is the best role for the state just to provide the conditions for innovation to flourish, or is there a role of the state to require it to happen? Is a real-terms freeze the best thing to be asking for or would science (and therefore the economy) benefit from government taking a counter-cyclical investment strategy, spending now to stimulate growth while interest rates are low?  Is there an innovation case for a British Investment bank? What does the government need to do to unleash the £800bn that private sector organisations are believed to be holding onto rather than investing at the moment?  What skills do the workforce need to meet such an investment?  As well as pushing science policy thinking forward, the answers to these questions could provide a very fruitful starting point for developing policy ideas for economic growth.  Armed with such ideas, the scientific community would find themselves with a place at the manifesto planning table in the run up to the 2015, rather than running behind the big boys begging to be spared the cuts.

In the next few months and years, political decisions will be made that decide whether the UK continues to see science and innovation as the icing on a service industry dominated cake, or if the UK really does become the innovation nation we hope for.  This is no time for modesty.  When politicians and economists talk about growth, they mean science and innovation.  When they say they are looking for ways of stimulating growth, they are opening the door to the scientific community’s suggestions for how to do more science in the UK. Let’s not miss this chance. Science must be THE driver of Britain’s new economy.  With so much to gain, it is time science, and science policy, steps out of the science portfolio and becomes a mainstream economic and political issue.

Could ‘the merchants of debt’ help science?

Melanie Smallman writes in this week’s (15 February 2012) Research Fortnight:

View from the top:  In Mammon we trust – could bank bonuses benefit research? 

Science minister David Willetts announced at the beginning of 2012 that the government wanted to build a new class of universities focused on science, technology and postgraduate training, as part of its commitment to boosting growth in the UK economy. But the announce- ment was coupled with a warning that there would be no extra public funding to make this happen.

“We will be looking to private finance and perhaps sponsorship from some of the businesses that are keen to recruit more British graduates,” he said, citing the recent competition to build a new graduate school on Roosevelt Island in New York as an example of how things could work here.

At a time when universities are seeing budgets squeezed, businesses are cutting costs and UK gradu- ates are joining the dole queue, you could be forgiven for wondering whether Willetts is being a little over- optimistic about industry’s willingness to help him out. Indeed, some science-policy academics have gone as far as to dismiss the proposals as ‘fanciful’, pointing out that industry has its own research labs, which it will invest in if there’s money to spend.

However, Willetts’ idea might not be completely mad. Although the government’s funding hopes were directed elsewhere, there is one UK industry that has an interest in gaining intelligence about research and innovation, with access to the scale of cash needed to set up a research institute, and it has a desperate need to demonstrate that it performs a social good: the bank- ing industry.

The amounts paid in bonuses to bankers have caused outrage frequently over the last few weeks. But significant possibilities are opened up if you take a cooler-headed look at the scale of money being handed out. For instance, Barclays boss Bob Diamond is report- ed to have taken home £60 million in performance-related pay in the years around the credit crunch—that could run the National Institute for Medical Research very comfortably for more than two years. Similarly, the total bonus pot of £2 billion that Barclays was reported to have handed out in 2010 was twice the size of the annual budget for Cern. And this is just one bank being compared with ambitious examples of international-level, Nobel prize win- ning research institutes in competitive fields. Focused in the right way, just a proportion of the industry’s bonus pot could create an institution that is capable of making a significant impact—and still leave city bosses richer than most of us can ever dream of.

But why should we expect super-rich individuals or institutions to pay for research when they could just spend it on fast cars and big houses? For a start, there is the argument of enlightened self-interest. The world of high finance and investment isn’t that far removed from the laboratory bench anymore. Besides the numerous hi-tech funds that rely upon technical information about new developments and innovation in order to value and trade their stocks, the brightest and best maths and science PhDs have been poached by the city for many years—so much so that the Royal Institution even runs an exclusive club for them so that they can keep in touch with their former fields. Bringing together city finance and scientific insight into one institution could create an interesting new model of knowledge production, investment approaches and career opportunities.

Second, although it has fallen out of fashion in the last century, there is a long history of the private profits of industry funding basic—and not just applied or trans- lational—research. Just think about the Wellcome Trust, which was created to administer the fortunes amassed from the invention of the tablet, and now funds £600m of university research each year. Or the Howard Hughes Institute in the US, again funded from the legacy of a business magnate and spending $852m (£538m) a year. Why not the bankers in the 21st century?

Perhaps most importantly of all, however, is the repu tational benefit that would come from doing something good with the money that many citizens believe was ill- begotten. The story goes that Alfred Nobel changed his will to create the Nobel prize from the fortune he made from the invention of dynamite when he read his prematurely published obituary, headlined “The Merchant of Death is dead”. He wanted to be remembered differently.

Instead of the government’s announcement being an over-optimistic idea from a minister grabbing at straws then, perhaps this is a chance for ‘the merchants of debt’—the city bosses who oversaw the credit crunch—to be remembered for something else too.

View of the Budget: ‘Safeguard’ offers no safety for science

I wrote an article in last week’s Research Fortnight, arguing that today’s ‘Budget for Growth’ needs more than warm words about science if it’s to truly deliver economic growth.  Here it is for those who aren’t RF subscribers:

Research Fortnight 16 March 2011

View of the Budget

The ‘safeguarded’ science budget provides no safety at all

British Chancellor George Osborne has promised that next week’s budget announcement will be “the most pro-growth in a generation”.  With GDP dropping by 0.6% in the last 3 months of 2010 and the British Retail Consortium revising their growth predictions for 2011 downwards, this promise couldn’t come at a better time.  Given the Government’s current focus on deficit reduction, it will be tempting to talk about low-cost measures to remove barriers and red tape.  But returning to growth has to be part of reducing the deficit and takes more than a government in low gear. Next week’s budget needs to reveal a turbo-charged strategy for growth, pointing all aspects of government policy towards growth for years to come.  Vitally, that must include R&D and higher education policy.

The essential role of R&D and the UK’s world leading universities in driving growth has been well argued over the past few years – not least by the government in explaining why ‘safeguarding’ the science budget in last year’s comprehensive spending review was important.  Although a very rosy picture has been painted of the ‘safeguarded’ science budget, it looks increasingly less pro-growth as details of the total science spend across government emerge. At standstill, with no inflationary increases, the safeguarded science budget is subject to real-term cuts.  Applying the Office for Budget Responsibility’s inflation forecasts, this means a loss of £1.15bn by 2014/15. But public science spend also includes departmental R&D, capital, R&D tax credits, Regional Development Agency R&D funding and the Technology Strategy Board.  These amount to an additional 50% of science spend in UK, none of which have been safeguarded.  On capital alone, applying inflation to the figures announced late last year, by 2014-15, investment in infrastructure will be about 46% less than this year.  Taking all of this into account, the final outcome is likely to be between 14% and 25% cuts to UK science funding.  Unless the forthcoming budget announcement reverses this and delivers at least a genuinely standstill budget for science in the UK, far from being a budget for growth, or even a safeguarded budget, this level of support will be pushing the UK science back to the dark days of investment starved facilities we last saw in the 1980s and early 1990s.

This will have far-reaching and long-term impacts on growth here in the UK.  Significantly it will also hold back any plans the government may have to encourage growth of the private sector. Because while there’s wide agreement that the new jobs we need must come from the private sector, there is no evidence showing that the less the state does the more businesses will do.  On the contrary in fact – wwithdrawing public funding is likely to result in a similar shrinking of private investment. Research Councils UK (RCUK) have calculated that every £1 cut annually from science spending will result in a £10 drop in GDP, because of the economic contribution and private sector leverage made by publicly funded science in the UK.

But creating the right conditions for private investment and growth isn’t just about public finances.  Academic thinking around models of knowledge production and science systems is also showing how the sources of knowledge production – the basis of profit making companies in the future – is becoming more dispersed and networked. Whereas knowledge used to be produced primarily in Universities and industrial labs, it is now just as likely to take place in hi-tech spin-offs, think tanks and small consultancies. The old pipeline model of technology transfer, where knowledge is pushed from university labs to be applied in industry, is being replaced with a network picture. Tom Blundell touched on this in his recent article explaining why Pfizer left Sandwich, where he talks about industry moving towards ‘open innovation’ and ‘open sourcing’ and outsourcing much of their work to small companies and university departments. This more integrated model means that yet-to-be-made government decisions around the future of R&D tax credits and the funding that used to be available through the Regional Development Agencies are all the more vital in any plans for growth.  It also points out how important other non-financial policy levers become: ensuring the right IP regime exists to make the most of this knowledge production wherever it arises; creating certainty around the future powers of Local Enterprise Partnerships and Enterprise Zones, so that valuable micro businesses can make smart decisions about location; ensuring these businesses can access funding through schemes such as the promised Green Investment Bank; and using strategic decisions on infrastructure, transport and energy policy to help develop a further technology pull.  Delivering that within a competitive world economy means more than a series of budgetary measures – next week, the UK needs to see a serious and coherent strategy for growth.

Melanie Smallman is Director of science policy and communication consultancy Think-Lab and an honorary research fellow in science and technology studies at University College London.

The untouched public – an urban myth?

Some time ago, we carried out some research for ScienceWise, looking at how to target online and social media with stories about public dialogue.  What we found turned our thinking on its head.  In particular, we became convinced that the ‘interruption’ model of communication (getting your information in front of people who are really looking for something else – through adverts in popular TV programmes, for instance) just doesn’t work online. As I explained in a blog in January 2009:

Online media outlets are extremely fragmented. This means that it’s easy to reach niche audiences (the famous ‘long tail’) – ideal if you’re a model soldier company looking to sell to model soldier enthusiasts, but less helpful when you’re trying to involve citizens in discussions about stem cells. You really aren’t looking for stem cell enthusiasts, but a posting on the local ‘stitch’nbitch’ forum might be out of place.

I know we’ve had lots of debates about public/publics for many years, but the fragmented online world has made me wonder whether we ever did move beyond the concept of a ‘disinterested public’ when it comes to public dialogue and engagement. For many projects, the mass media is seen as a bridge from the world of policy to the world of these disinterested creatures. But it’s not a realistic perception – newspapers reach particular groups of people, and an even more particular sub-set of those read a given article. Even if you get the occasional person with no interest in stem cells accidentally reading an article about your stem cell consultation (maybe it’s next to an article about knitting?) surely they’re not going to volunteer to take part in the debate unless they have some personal connection to the issue? Apart from those instances when projects have chosen participants off the electoral register and paid them to give their views, have we ever really involved citizens who aren’t interested? Is it time to move away from the ‘interrruption’ model of communication and come to terms with the fact that our audiences are interested, so that we can start defining the niches to target more clearly?

Surprisingly to me, neither the blog posting, nor the report and various presentations I’ve made of our findings have generated any response let alone debate – apparently the issue of the disinterested public is settled for science communicators in the UK.  A new paper ‘the high cost of citizen engagement in high technology’ in this month’s Public Understanding of Science journal raises the same point but from a very different and US, perspective however.

Using two case studies that the paper’s authors had been involved with and comparing the kind of people attracted to each and the responses given, they suggest that in an era in which the barriers to civic engagement—most especially time—are large for many citizens, significant incentives are likely to affect participation. These incentives may be internal (e.g. a personal interest in a topic or an investment in a policy outcome) or external (e.g. money). In this context, they critique the aim of recruiting “blank slate” participants for consensus conferences and other deliberative democratic forums.

These points seem to challenge the basis of most public dialogue activities – that the public has a different perspective to experts and that its worth time and effort soliciting these views.  There are of course other purposes for dialogue, but if it’s not to hear new perspectives then the purpose shifts towards a democratic rather than utilitarian argument.  Which seems a matter worthy of discussion to me – particularly when budgets are tight.

Science Communication and Dialogue – blurring boundaries?

For the past 10 years, since the publication of the House of Lord’s ‘Science and Society’ report in 2000, the push in science communication has been away from one-way and towards two-way communications.  The rationale was clear – the old one-way ‘deficit’ model hadn’t worked.  Instead we needed to listen to what people have to say about science and technology and engage in two-way ‘dialogue’.

Since then, the sector has become increasingly professionalised – many of the projects funded by the last few years of the Sciencewise programme have been led by ‘dialogue professionals’ in more market- or social- research based organisations for instance.  When museums, journalists, web designers and other comms folk have been involved, it has been as partners.

Of course helping participants understand the science their debating and publicising the findings of participation projects is an important role, but is that the sum total of our contribution? What else could we and should we be doing?

Think-Lab have been involved in a number of projects, such as Small Talk, which have shown that science communicators can lead meaningful public dialogues which reach much bigger numbers than other processes and at much lower costs.  We’ve also found that online, the boundary between dialogue and communication is much more blurred – this blog is both showing off our wares and having a conversation, for example.  So is it we science communicators reclaim our territory at the front and centre in this agenda?