After the US, the UK has by any measure the best science on Earth, and the best research universities on Earth. This is an exceptional economic asset. The rest of the world would kill to have what we have.
The creation and application of new ideas is critical for long-term productivity growth. It is also necessary for addressing the complex challenges facing our society, such as climate change, ageing, security and delivering better public services – not least through intelligent government policy, well informed by outstanding work in the humanities and social sciences.
For two decades, the Treasury has bought these arguments – and, with them, the need to invest serious money in research and innovation. I am proud to have been personally closely involved in this, through five spending reviews and innumerable budgets.
As Sir Paul Nurse argued in his milestone review of the research councils last year, we must continue to win this argument. This means making the case clearly, persuasively and loudly to critical decision-makers. It also means demonstrably making the most of the extraordinary assets we have.
This is why I am delighted to have been asked to be the first non-executive chair of UK Research and Innovation: the new strategic, overarching body unveiled last week in the Higher Education and Research Bill to be put before Parliament.
Certain fundamental principles need to be non-negotiable. The government has rightly reiterated its commitment to the Haldane principle, ensuring that the best researchers will continue to be responsible for deciding which research projects are funded. And I have also always been a firm believer in the merits of the dual-support system for research, which will be enshrined in the new legislation.
But I also think that there are subtler points about UKRI’s governing philosophy that it is important to bear in mind.
First, bringing together under one body the seven research councils, Innovate UK and the research funding functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England will be an important opportunity, and I will work with their leaders to ensure that the transition to UKRI retains the huge strengths and values of all these bodies, and the autonomy that they need to serve their communities.
Second, in building the new “strategic” and cross-cutting role of UKRI, I believe that we need to be extremely disciplined and clear-headed about its precise roles. There is absolutely no value in building a galumphing new bureaucracy; UKRI’s strategic function needs to be lean, focused, respected and (of course) extremely high quality.
The comparison is not exact, but I believe that we have much to learn from the experience of the Office for Strategic Coordination of Health Research (OSCHR) in the medical research field – which, as it happens, I was involved in creating. The OSCHR has demonstrably performed the trick of adding real value without getting in the way.
Third, we must continue to ensure that Innovate UK can play a transformative, business-facing role in strengthening innovation and, working alongside the research councils, building the bridge between the UK’s innovative businesses and our world-leading research base. It needs to be funded to do that.
Finally, I believe that UKRI will succeed only if it continues to attract outstanding people to lead the individual research councils and Innovate UK. Indeed, this is one of the most concrete ways in which UKRI’s performance should be judged.
In short, UKRI must deliver a joined-up approach to interdisciplinary problems, improve collaboration within the research base, ensure a highly trained and diverse workforce and drive the commercialisation of discoveries.
It must contain a small but highly effective strategic brain at its centre, with the aim of making sure that we invest every pound wisely. This will be essential if we are to ensure that the funding argument is won. Only then will the UK be able to retain and build on its position of international excellence in research to drive a successful knowledge-based economy.
John Kingman is currently acting permanent secretary to the Treasury. He will be the first non-executive chair of UK Research and Innovation.