‘Ambiguity’ over UKRI role holding back progress, says review

‘Unclear’ status of main UK science funder has led to slow decision-making, inefficiency and limited cross-disciplinary research, finds report

July 20, 2022

The UK’s main science funder has yet to achieve many of its original ambitions because of “ambiguity” over its relationship to the research councils it was set up to coordinate, an independent review has found.

In a 13,000-word report examining the organisation and performance of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) since it was launched in April 2018, Sir David Grant highlighted several challenges that had hampered the organisation over the past four years.

One major issue pinpointed by the former vice-chancellor of Cardiff University was the “ambiguity” over “whether this was a merger of nine organisations into one or whether UKRI is a light-touch umbrella sitting above nine empowered organisations”.

His review had uncovered a “continuing lack of clarity within and outside UKRI on which of these models was the aim”, said Sir David, whose report examined how this uncertainty had led, in part, to “uncoordinated processes, insufficient cross-council (or cross-discipline) cooperation and a lack of clarity on organisational aims and purpose”, as well as limited efficiency gains related to economies of scale.

On UKRI’s governance, he drew attention to its “large” executive committee board of 14 standing members, including UKRI chief executive Dame Ottoline Leyser, nine research council heads and “any other employees that the CEO may wish to appoint”.

“It operates by consensus which ensures views across the organisation are heard, however it is sometimes difficult to get clarity on how decisions are made and by whom,” says the report, which adds that “there are frequent meetings and thus potential opportunities for robust discussion between the leadership team [but] meetings do not always lead to decisions collectively owned by the group”.

“UKRI needs to simplify its governance and decision-making processes within the framework set by legislation,” it recommends, stating that “delegation of authority and decision-making to the most effective and appropriate level should happen more often” and that efforts should be made to “improve the speed of decision-making and efficient use of executive time”.

That structure is further complicated by input from research council committees, each with between five to 12 members, it adds.

Sir David’s review also raises concerns about the rising headcount at UKRI, whose staffing administration had grown by 55 per cent in the three years to 2020-21 after the transition from the previous research council structure.

That level of staffing was the “most visible evidence of inefficiencies”, the report explains, but other cost-efficiencies were possible as “processes are not optimised, systems are not integrated or harmonised, and IT systems have legacy challenges”.

“These factors appear to have received inadequate funding and managerial priority during the early years of the organisation,” it says.

However, the report raises the challenge of political interference and accountability in UKRI’s operation, which accounted for a large slice of the funder’s internal bureaucracy. It had “identified a non-exhaustive list of 40 different reports they must produce for government either annually, quarterly or monthly,” the report says, adding that it took one week to approve the second wave of Covid research funding but two weeks to gain the ministerial green light and six weeks for Treasury assent.

It also says it is “highly unusual” to have so many ministerial appointments below CEO level, with 83 per cent of executive roles requiring government sign-off.

The report urges the government to streamline key objectives for UKRI and remove the need for ministerial approval for research council chair roles and other senior positions.

Welcoming the report, Sir Andrew Mackenzie, UKRI’s chairman, said the review “offered valuable and timely support and challenge to the UKRI board, highlighting opportunities for us to better steer UKRI to capitalise on the extraordinary research and innovation talent and creativity that will put the UK at the forefront of solutions to national and global challenges”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This is not good news. Another example of Conservative policies, designed to improve things, resulting in a massive increase in spending / costs and little practical benefit. Bureaucracy is ever increasing, as is the number of civil servants. Things are not properly "thought through" and the design and governance of new initiatives is flawed and wasteful. Existing civil servants do not have the right skills or training to manage "operational activities" and forward planning is poor, targets unclear and supervision ineffective.

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