The spending review is just the start of a battle for UK research
27 October 2015
In an article originally appearing in The Guardian, Campaign Chair James Wilsdon, Campaign Head of Policy David Walker, and Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, write about the future of UK research.
Last night, a capacity crowd of 300 scientists and friends of science poured into Conway Hall in London for the Science is Vital rally. Parallel gatherings took place in Glasgow, Swansea, York and around the country. Through comedy, music and talks by Jim Al-Khalili, Uta Frith, Simon Singh and many others, the message of the evening was loud and clear: in next month’s spending review, George Osborne needs to reverse the damaging cuts of recent years and invest more in research.
Just as in the lead-up to the last spending review in 2010, grassroots efforts by groups like Science is Vital are a crucial part of the mix: helping to mobilise the research community to exert pressure on MPs and policymakers. And the target of these efforts – the size of the overall settlement for research on 25 November – of course matters hugely. But unlike 2010, this time around the spending review itself will be just the start of a protracted battle for the future of UK research.
Ministers have signalled their aspiration to redesign and simplify the funding system, leaving a question mark hanging over the future of the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). On 19 October, in an effort to get on the front foot, and define what sort of “simplification” is acceptable, the research councils produced a plan to consolidate activities under the banner “Research Councils Together.” This sets out a commitment to working as a “single, collective organisation” but stops short of a full-blown merger. Meanwhile, a formal review of the councils, led by Sir Paul Nurse, continues its work, and is now expected to publish interim findings ahead of the spending review, with a final report in the new year.
Universities and researchers are now preparing for a winter of discontent, as arguments rage over the future of the research councils, HEFCE and the research excellence framework. On top of all this, a higher education green paper is expected any day, which will include more details of the proposed teaching excellence framework and changes to the regulatory landscape.
It is of course legitimate for ministers to ask tough questions about the way the research system is organised. Over the past fifty years, the UK has employed a variety of models for research funding, and after two decades of relative stability, it seems sensible to look afresh at whether current arrangements are up to the task of meeting current economic, social and environmental priorities. We certainly welcome evidence-informed deliberation about research governance and outcomes.
The worry is that the current perturbations are motivated less by evidence, or the lessons of international experience, and more by a desire to curb spending, reduce head count and deliver a rather superficial form of administrative simplification. In research, as in other areas of policy, ministers seem peculiarly uninterested in making government more effective, rather than simply reducing its footprint. It’s hard to read the BIS 2020 strategy, with its arbitrary target of reducing the number of partner bodies by “more than half” in any other way.
Nobody pretends that the current system is perfect. Sir Mark Walport is not the first chief scientific adviser to express frustration over the alignment of government strategy for science and technology, and its delivery through the research council system. And the councils have not always showered themselves in administrative glory: several of the changes proposed in the “Research Councils Together” package should bring greater coherence to the delivery of doctoral training, communications, knowledge exchange, public engagement, finance and international activities.
The question is whether this pre-emptive strike will be enough. The “Research Councils Together” document mentions that “senior colleagues in BIS have been briefed on our plans and are also very supportive”. But final decisions will hinge on a combination of the Nurse review, the spending review and wider efforts to reshape BIS. Sajid Javid may feel that, if the Research Councils are already willing to move this far, it won’t take much to force them into a full-scale merger, removing six lines from the BIS organogram at a stroke.
Similar uncertainty surrounds the fate of the innovation agency, Innovate UK. Legally speaking this is another research council (created under the same Science and Technology Act 1965 as the other councils) but it’s a relatively recent arrival on the scene and is not mentioned in the “Research Councils Together” plan. The Financial Times reported yesterday that ministers are exploring whether Innovate UK’s £600 million of annual grants to support business R&D could be converted into loans.
A loan-based system is used by innovation agencies in Finland and Israel, but would be unpopular among R&D-intensive businesses in the UK, and makes little sense in light of the much larger sum of £1.6 billion that we spend each year (in forgone income) on subsidising R&D through tax credits (though this is the responsibility of HM Treasury rather than BIS).
A broader question is whether the mission of Innovate UK is the right one. Sajid Javid is reportedly sceptical about its role in supporting firms, whether through subsidies, tax incentives or loan schemes. Arguably, what the UK needs is less generic support for incremental R&D and more major investment – public and private – in the development and demonstration of new technologies. If government is first to blink in a game of chicken between the public and private sectors over who should lead investment in technological innovation, then public money should be spent wherever it is likely to have the most technological impact. Sadly that’s not in UK firms – which tend to undervalue innovation – but in universities and Innovate UK’s own catapult centres. Innovate UK should stop seeing itself as a business support agency and start seeing itself as a technology agency.
However these debates play out, the research community should continue to demand hard evidence for the improvements that will flow from any changes. We also need to point to a contradiction in the government’s aims to reduce costs and headcount, while simultaneously asking funders to work in more collaborative, outcome-focused ways.
Evidence from other countries, and from UK charities like the Wellcome Trust, shows that support for interdisciplinary, challenge-led research, requires more – rather than less – investment in strategic management of the funding system: to broker collaborations, facilitate engagement with users, develop meaningful metrics and disseminate outcomes. Only now, with a new strategy and a substantial boost to its available budget, is the Wellcome Trust starting to scale up this kind of funding, as an alternative to “cranking the handle” and getting grants out of the door.
Government appears to be asking the research councils to perform the same trick, but with fewer people and less resources, which is setting them up to fail. Many seem resigned to another “flat cash” settlement for research on 25 November, but if there’s any prospect at all of a modest uplift in budgets, then this should be the rationale: using any extra resource to support meaningful and lasting improvements in the way the UK research system operates.
Another message that came out of last night’s Science is Vital rally was the need for unity across the research community, in the face of these uncertainties. The prospect of ever-tighter austerity and the upheaval of any reorganisation could easily end up pitting discipline against discipline, researcher against researcher in a zero sum fight for resources. We need to resist this. As the historian Lisa Jardine, whose untimely death this week is being mourned across the university system, wrote at the time of the last spending review: “In straitened times, it is not inevitable that arts and sciences should retreat into their separate siloes….United we stand, building towards future prosperity and continuing intellectual distinction for Britain. Divided, we surely, inevitably, fall.”
Kieron Flanagan (@kieronflanagan) is a senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, David Walker (@Exauditor77) is head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences. James Wilsdon (@jameswilsdon) is chair of the Campaign for Social Science and professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.