UK sets out future strategy for research and innovation

05 Jul 2017 | News
Don’t mention the B word: the first major reform of R&D funding since 1965 aims to make the UK the “go-to place” for science. But in setting out the vision, no reference was made to Brexit and its implications

The UK government is to set up a £100 million fund to attract overseas talent as part of the biggest shake-up of public research funding since 1965.

“This is a signal as we leave the EU, that we remain open to the world more so than ever,” said Jo Johnson, science minister, announcing the fund, to be named after the father of nuclear physics and immigrant to the UK, Ernest Rutherford.

The Rutherford fund is part of wider reforms, which will see an umbrella body, the UK Research and Innovation Agency (UKRI), take on responsibility for strategic oversight of all public research spending.

The announcement in November 2016 of an additional £4.7 billion in research funding up to 2020 will see UKRI controlling a budget of £8 billion per annum by the end of the decade.

In addition, the government has a target of increasing R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP in the next ten years.

UKRI will be central to how this significant extra funding is invested, said Johnson. “It will make the UK the global go-to nation,” Johnson said. “In time [UKRI] will gain the reputation as the world’s best funder of science, research and innovation.”

With the proposed increases in the science budget, it would be very difficult to decide how to allocate the money in support of UK industrial strategy in the absence of an agency like UKRI.

“It’s baffling to me how we got to this stage without having such a body,” Johnson said.

Disciplinary fiefdoms

The science minister was speaking to the great and good of the UK science establishment in London on Tuesday as the warm-up act for Mark Walport, currently government chief scientist, who is to head UKRI when it gets off the ground in April 2018.

The new agency will for the first time provide a single arbiter of how R&D funding is distributed, a move that is contentious for many in the seven research councils, who see UKRI as encroaching on disciplinary fiefdoms. Others do not want funding for research and funding for the technology development agency, Innovate UK, to come from the same pot.

UKRI’s unprecedented power to determine priorities and direct funding is also seen as at odds with the Haldane principle under which UK science has operated since the 1970s. This holds that the government allocates the money but the seven research councils are each in control of what research it is spent on. The principle, named after British politician Richard Burdon Haldane who first enunciated it a century ago, was intended to insulate science funding decisions from politics.

From April 2018, the heads of the research councils and of Innovate UK will form the executive committee of UKRI, reporting to Walport.

In his first major address since being appointed to run UKRI in February, and the first sight of how the paper description of UKRI will translate into reality, Walport said excellence would be the underlying principle for how money is distributed and in deciding the balance of funding between research and innovation.

But with UKRI in the process of being formed the thorny details of how to allocate money between disciplines has not been addressed.

Much of the rationale for UKRI is to create a body that can foster multidisciplinary research.

“We need a balance of funding across research,” Walport said, promising to consult extensively and assess all the evidence.

Do not duck the questions

Weighing one discipline against another may be invidious, but, said Walport, “it is not something we can duck; we have a fossilised system.”

One thing he notably did duck was the UK’s exit from the EU and what it will mean for science, the collaboration and partnerships Walport claims to want to foster, and the best minds he hopes to attract.

Moves to establish UKRI began long before the referendum vote to leave the EU and in this sense the reform of UK science funding is in no way predicated on Brexit. But it is bordering on fatuous that in laying out a vision to be a global science nation, there was not one mention of future relationships with the EU’s science base, with which UK R&D is so intertwined.

Incredibly, none of the academics present raised the issue either, with their questions far more fixed on the mechanics of UKRI’s oversight.

There has been significant resistance and fear that the formation of UKRI would mean a loss of autonomy for individual disciplines and lead to a shift in funding from basic to applied research.

Walport was careful to tell the audience that translating the written brief into a functioning agency was not about his vision but the vision of the research community. “It is extremely important we all own UKRI,” he said.

Single disciplines cannot provide the answers

UKRI is “timely and necessary” because research and innovation are needed to confront and manage the ways in which the world is changing, with grand challenges of ageing, infectious diseases, climate change and other intractable problems requiring the appliance of science.

“To tackle the big questions you need interdisciplinarity. Looking through the lens of a single discipline won’t provide the answers,” Walport said.

At the same time, the practice of science is changing. Research is a global activity, conducted in an international landscape. There is an amazing array of new tools and instruments, many of which cannot be funded by one nation alone.

UKRI also needs to address the ways in which business and industry is changing and to confront the problem of diminishing trust in experts. Rather than being regarded as independent, science is now seen as part of the establishment, Walport said. “We have to engage and demonstrate what it is to be a scientific expert.”

All of this flux is creating the impetus to look at the research and innovation landscape in a much more integrated fashion.

The future centrally-directed model under UKRI will be built on the current “extremely powerful” UK research and innovation system and fashioned around the pillars of knowledge, its application for economic benefit and to create social impact by supporting society to become stronger and healthier, Walport said.


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