UK research plan ‘shows institutes preferred over universities’

Lack of enthusiasm for universities within new research ‘road map’ confirms government wish to spend funding elsewhere, says policy expert

七月 3, 2020
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Universities may have “mixed” feelings about a new national plan to turn the UK into a “research superpower” because it confirms the government’s “ambivalent, even hostile, attitude” towards expanding their research funding, a leading policy expert has claimed.

Many of the proposals within the government’s new “research and development road map”, including the extension of post-study work visas for PhD students and the creation of a new “Office for Talent” that will review immigration rules to make them more friendly to international scientists, were warmly welcomed by sector leaders when they were announced on 1 July.

But universities were likely to be less pleased to see how they have been sidelined in the document’s discussion of how the UK will increase its research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024-25, said James Wilsdon, Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.

“We are going to see a very steep incline in the budget for research – at least £2 billion extra year-on-year by 2025 – but the picture that emerges for universities [from the road map] is rather mixed,” said Professor Wilsdon. “They don’t feature all that much compared to research institutes, whose future is more sketched out.”

The apparent preference for new or autonomous research institutes over universities when it comes to research spending is embodied in the plan’s firm recommitment to establishing a new funding agency modelled on the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, observed Professor Wilsdon.

“Lying behind this road map is the idea that more money should be spent on research outside the traditional university model, which reflects an ambivalent, even hostile, attitude towards universities as institutions,” he explained.

However, the desire to increase research spending in a short period of time would bring universities into consideration, given that the vast majority of public research activity is conducted within academia, said Professor Wilsdon.

“Setting up experimental research institutes takes a lot of time, so if you want to spend £22 billion a year on research, you may need to increase the volume of research in more established institutions,” he said. “That brings universities into the mix, even if there is a desire to spend money on these new institutes,” he said.

Beth Thompson, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust, said she was “more positive” about the road map’s recognition of the importance of university-based research.

“There is a whole section on renewing the ‘compact’ between universities and government, which talks about the opportunity to fund a greater proportion of full economic costs of research and the problems of research sustainability,” said Dr Thompson. “This is quite geeky stuff, but it is very important.”

More broadly, Dr Thompson praised the road map’s recognition of an “unhealthy work culture” within some parts of research and its commitment to create opportunities for people to “pursue diverse and flexible careers in R&D”.

“It is important to start from a position of honesty about certain challenges faced by the sector, which is not an easy thing to do,” said Dr Thompson. “I feel it has opened up the discussion about research culture that we are having.

“It was also encouraging that it said we shouldn’t have to wait until we have perfect evidence before [UK Research and Innovation] and other organisations start to act on these problems,” Dr Thompson added.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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