Sir Mark Walport: my ambition as first chief of UKRI

The new CEO of UKRI, Sir Mark Walport, says a shake-up of UK research funding is needed if the country is to remain internationally competitive

February 2, 2017
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The UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has confirmed that Sir Mark Walport – currently the government’s chief scientific adviser – will become the first chief executive officer of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the new research and innovation funding organisation being established by the Higher Education and Research Bill. Here, he writes about his ambitions for his tenure. 

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries was driven by a community of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They were liberated by the Enlightenment, an age of science, engineering, reason and philosophical enquiry.

At the heart of the Industrial Revolution was the steam that drove the industrial engines of the 18th and 19th centuries. Steam continues to drive the turbines in many of the power stations that generate the electricity on which we completely depend. But it is steam of a different sort that is powering the industrial revolution of the 21st century – STEAM in the form of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Since the start of the Enlightenment, the UK has been a scientific world leader.

What is the recipe for this today? Our universities are foremost among the ingredients. They bring together the brightest minds, freedom of enquiry and vital resources. They provide education that is inspired by research. They engage with the outside world, with business and industry, with local communities, cities and regions, and the world at large. They exchange a heady mix of staff and ideas, collaboration and competition.

Furthermore, the UK has world-leading research institutes, such as the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

We are a world leader in the application of our research. In medicine we invented medical ultrasound, CT and MRI scanners, discovered how to make monoclonal antibodies and how to sequence DNA. We invented the steam engine and the jet engine. The modern computer was born in the minds of mathematicians and created by engineers from Charles Babbage to Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers.

The impact of anthropological studies funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council in tackling Ebola highlighted that social sciences and humanities are essential to informed policy development and delivery.

Just as important is the innovation led by our business community. We know that industrial research is a central ingredient for the success of companies large and small, many of which employ outstanding scientists, engineers and technologists and work in close partnerships with UK universities. Our pharmaceutical, aerospace and burgeoning technology sectors show that we are outstanding at innovation, turning knowledge and ideas into products and services.

Many of our world-class creative arts businesses combine art, design and technology, from the cutting edges of the performing arts to the computer gaming industry. We must continue to capitalise on our strengths, making the most of business opportunities emerging from investments in areas such as robotics, clean energy and biotechnology.

Neither research nor innovation can happen without money, public and private. So another ingredient for our success is our public funding agencies: the seven research councils – created more than a century ago, starting with the Medical Research Council – alongside our innovation funding agency, Innovate UK.

And yet another ingredient is our dual-support system, which gives universities the strategic capability to direct some of their funds to support new areas of scholarship, and to support the shared infrastructure necessary for a successful academic endeavour. But with all of these ingredients, why mess around with a system that is so successful?

The answer is that we need to continue to raise our game. The world is getting the hang of the idea that research and innovation are crucial to economic growth – and many nations are putting their money where their mouth is.

We cannot sit on our laurels, or even our Nobel prizes. Research and innovation funding is still largely delivered by organisations siloed in traditional disciplines, allowing some imaginative proposals to fall between the cracks. Solving many of the most important fundamental research questions and tackling the challenges facing society requires an interdisciplinary approach. 

A review of the research councils once concluded:

“Whatever organisation is ultimately adopted to manage basic and strategic research it should be one that unifies rather than fragments scientific activity, one in which the determination of the scientific programmes is in the hands of scientists and one which retains a close association with the education and training of scientists of the future. In our view it is illogical on the one hand to assert the unity of science and the fluidity of its internal boundaries, and on the other hand to approve a system of completely independent Research Councils, each of which can only operate within relatively rigid boundaries set by its individual charter.”

These words were published in 1971 by Sir Frederick Dainton. They were strongly echoed in Sir Paul Nurse’s report, which has led the government to create UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Higher Education and Research Bill. The government has also put its money where its mouth is with the announcement in the 2015 Autumn Statement of £4.7 billion of new R&D funding between now and 2021.

Subject to Parliament, UKRI will bring together under a single umbrella the seven research councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation, Research England, working closely with its partner organisations in the devolved administrations.

The ambition is simple. In her recent Lancaster House speech, the prime minister stated her desire that Britain should be one of the best places in the world for research and innovation. UKRI will help to ensure that the UK maintains this position by creating a research funding system greater than the sum of its parts.

It will provide a coherent voice for research and innovation. It will deliver greater focus on multi- and interdisciplinary research. It will provide a more strategic and agile approach to future challenges. It will achieve this by working closely with all of the communities for whom it is vital that UK research and innovation continues to be an outstanding success. Watch this space.

Sir Mark Walport is chief executive designate of UKRI (UK Research and Innovation).

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Print headline: Why a shake-up of UK research funding is needed

Reader's comments (1)

How is British science and technology supposed to attract young, technically-literate people into its fold when the real world they go into will require them to act in an unprofessional manner, later on in their career? In a report released last year, the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons accused the Ministry of Defence of using creative accounting practices to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP. What is less well known about MoD’s use of such under-hand tactics is that, it was the first to pioneer application of the wet-finger-in-the-air technique in the designing of military kit – more specifically, the most important aspect of defence equipment – its inherent reliability – which is an indicator of how frequently it will break-down when in service with the User, and therefore its cost of upkeep subsequently, through-life. The main reason why MoD Abbey Wood has failed to build-in desired levels of reliability into diligently engineered products is because Defence Contractors have been using the thoroughly unprofessional, wet-finger-in-the-air technique of ‘divvying up’ the given MTBF (mean time between failures) figure among lower-level Maintenance Significant Items – instead of employing the best practice method of determining overall system reliability ‘bottom up’ using measured failure rate figures (not predicted or estimated) derived from an up-to-date, Microsoft Access based 4th Line data repository. And from whom did Contractors’ people learn this method of quantifying equipment reliability? Why, none other than from the MoD! To be precise, the famous here-today-gone-tomorrow procurement officials who have been freely applying this wet-finger-in-the-air technique during their short stay at MoD Abbey Wood before migrating to the Defence Industry, in overwhelming numbers, and infecting it by continuing to spread this lazy practice – which has, over the years, become regularised and embedded in commercial & engineering processes to the extent that objective, evidence-based scientific analysis and thinking which has exercised technically-literate people since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been suppressed. This disastrous situation has come about because 99% of people who end-up working in the Defence Industry were previously in the pay of the State – with no prior Private Sector experience. It should come as no surprise to MoD that all competing bids appear to be fully compliant with the reliability requirement claiming the same level of achievement, a figure slightly higher than that stated in the technical specification – thereby denying Abbey Wood Team Leader the opportunity to discriminate between Technical Solutions on the basis of inherent reliability. So, instead of acting as a responsible great Department of State and instilling professional values in its loyal employees, the Ministry of Defence has ended up doing the exact opposite! It has made a mockery and laughing stock of the engineering profession – as practiced in the UK – especially in the eyes of European competitor nations, the United States and potential export governments in the Arabian Gulf region, the wider Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and emerging nations in the Asia-Pacific region – where the engineering profession is still regarded in high esteem, and remains an automatic career choice for many young people. @JagPatel3 on twitter

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