Big increase in UK research funding may bring major system revamp

Green Paper under consideration to explore nature and scope of ‘mission’ approach, while funding increases under discussion could range to the ‘eye-popping’

October 10, 2019
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Streamlining: a mission-oriented approach will offer researchers ‘financial security and reliability’ and raise the profile of their work

A large increase in UK research spending being discussed by the Boris Johnson government could be accompanied by a major reshaping of the funding system to create a multi-year framework setting out key scientific missions – an approach seen as bringing potential rewards and risks.

Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, wants to create a five-year financial framework programme to fund research with strategic missions “centred” within it, similar to the European Union’s system, to promote public appreciation of the benefits of research funding.

Ministers and advisers are in the early stages of discussions on this plan, seeing a potential major increase in research funding – aimed at delivering on the existing commitment to devote 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product to public and private research spending by 2027 – as an opportunity to take a more strategic approach to investment, if the Conservatives win the next general election.

Times Higher Education understands that the proposal is for all research and development spending funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to come under such a framework. Whether spending funded by other departments, such as health and defence, could come under the system will be one issue under discussion.

It is thought that, while any framework running between 2020 and 2025 would in essence be a repackaging of the status quo, there are early discussions about potentially creating a more fundamentally reformed framework system to implement in 2025-30.

Ministers and advisers are considering opening key questions, such as the nature and extent of missions, to public consultation via a Green Paper, THE understands.

The close and personal interest in science shown by Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s most senior adviser, could be a key influence on the plan.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said there was a “growing conviction” that Mr Cummings and others in government want to deliver the “massive uplifts” required to meet the 2.4 per cent target. But “they don’t seem to want it flowing through the normal systems and allocation pipelines”, which raises key questions about how it would be delivered and about “whose priorities” would set the strategy, he added.

Stian Westlake, a former adviser to three science ministers, including Mr Skidmore, said that “after Brexit”, science funding “is a very high priority for Dom Cummings”.

Mr Westlake said “the strongest argument” in favour of mission-oriented research was around “public accountability [and] public communication of research”. He added that “part of the quid pro quo for that [extra research spending] politically is to really make a strong case to the public for why this is happening”.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering estimated last year that public spending on R&D of £20 billion would be needed to meet the 2.4 per cent total target, an increase of £9 billion on baseline levels.

Mr Westlake said of the plans being formed in government: “It’s possible we might be looking at something even more ambitious than that. I would guess the range of outcomes would be between a 50 per cent increase and a doubling – a doubling would be eye-popping in many ways.”

The EU has decided to follow a “mission-oriented” approach in its next seven-year framework programme for research, starting in 2021, with five broad categories of mission agreed: climate change, cancer, oceans, carbon neutrality and food.

Robert-Jan Smits, former director general for research and innovation at the European Commission, said that he “fully understood” why the UK government wanted to move towards multi-annual frameworks. “It will offer financial security and reliability to the UK research community, [bringing] together scattered funding streams, and as such enhance visibility [of research] to the British citizen and society as a whole,” he said.

Mr Smits added that the missions chosen must be of a scale and scope appropriate to the national context. He cited Japan and China as countries “that have followed the EU approach and set up multi-annual science and innovation framework programmes”.

However, Mr Smits, now president of Eindhoven University of Technology, said that a national programme “will have impact only if it is opened up to scientists from across the globe”.

Professor Wilsdon said that while “everyone” in the sector would welcome the stability of multi-year funding, such a system would be “nothing new” given that the Labour government had introduced a 10-year framework in 2004, before losing power in 2010.

He cautioned that “what you don’t want is the whole system violently lurching off to this month’s new set of fashionable missions”, and that “the more you put into missions, the more you need to put into QR [quality-related funding] to provide the corresponding flexible money”.

But Professor Wilsdon also said the value of a mission-oriented approach – which already exists in some industrial strategy funding, for example – was “in breaking open the disciplinary categories and getting people to think in cross-disciplinary ways”.


Print headline: Big research funding boost may herald UK system overhaul

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Reader's comments (1)

Interesting, but also potentially harmful if there is little or no funding for smaller, more exploratory projects. Also, will this new initiative put money into research and implementation of the best ways to promote "public accountability [and] public communication of research"? We also need investigation of the best ways to foster transdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research, including involving the stakeholders and end users who are not researchers, which can be fraught and take time and commitment to work properly. Research funding in those areas has been woefully neglected.