Keep the status quo

June 16, 2016

John Kingman emphasises the importance of sustaining UK science and maximising its benefits (“UK Research and Innovation: ‘nine brains in one body’”, Opinion, 2 June). But he offers no convincing justification for the drastic reorganisation needed to establish UK Research and Innovation – the new body of which he’s been designated the first chairman.

It is proposed to remove the Royal Charter from all seven research councils – even the Medical Research Council, which has a global reputation and a century-old history. The executive chairs of the councils would be subordinate to the CEO of the new UKRI, which will also oversee the research funding channelled to universities via the Higher Education Funding Council for England (thereby risking a blurring of the dual support system). Also, even more contentiously, it would incorporate Innovate UK, a body with an important but distinct role in promoting innovation.

Kingman writes that the organisation of research will need a “small but highly effective strategic brain at its centre”. He also emphasises, as befits a senior Treasury official, the need to “invest every pound wisely”.

But he doesn’t explain why achieving these goals requires wholesale restructuring – still less whether its long-term advantages will justify the transition costs.

The current research support system needs some “tweaking”, and some cross-linkages. But these can surely be achieved within the present devolved structure. Indeed, it will become even harder to attract and retain outstanding people to run individual research councils if these posts are downgraded. And it’s a poor augury that when the research councils set up their Shared Research Services, their overheads went up, not down.

When there are so many pressures and upheavals in the educational and research world, we should surely avoid the prolonged distraction of a controversial reorganisation. Why not just shelve these proposals?

Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow)
Astronomer royal
Trinity College, Cambridge

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