HE White Paper: what it means for research

Research councils, Innovate UK and QR funding will be brought under one new body that will also distribute new money for interdisciplinary research

May 16, 2016
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A new “common research fund” is to be set up to promote interdisciplinary research as part of a shake-up to the research system announced in the White Paper on higher education.

As expected, the government is bringing together the seven existing research councils, Innovate UK and the research and innovation functions of the Higher Education Council for England (Hefce) into a new body called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), so that they work better together.

UKRI’s board will control a new “common research fund” as well as funds with “cross-disciplinary impact”, according to Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice.

This is in line with recommendations from a review of the research councils carried out last year by Sir Paul Nurse, which the government has previously said it would implement.

“The challenges facing the world are complex, and increasingly require multi- or inter-disciplinary approaches,” says the White Paper.

“Our ambition is to ensure that our research and innovation system is sufficiently integrated, strategic and agile to meet these challenges, and to deliver national capability for the future that drives discovery and growth.”

The document also seeks to head off criticisms of the reorganisation. David Sweeney, director (research, education and knowledge exchange) at Hefce, warned last December that splitting oversight of research and teaching funding (currently both administered by Hefce) could lead to badly joined up policy.

“Currently, we are trying to increase STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] provision all over the country,” he told MPs on the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

“In order to attract the staff who will teach those subjects there have to be opportunities to do research. To deliver the national priority of more STEM teaching, you have to look at teaching and research together.”

The White Paper says that UKRI will have a “coordinated and strategic approach” with the Office for Students, the new body set up to run teaching. The two bodies will share data to make sure that research is financially sustainable.

On this issue, Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, asked: “how are they going to ensure research and teaching mutually benefit each other?”

“If providers [of higher education, such as universities] are being driven by competition and choice….what about subjects that are strategically important for research?,” she said.

But Dr Sweeney told Times Higher Education that he was “pleased that the White Paper sets out how the Office for Students and UKRI works together” in coordinating teaching and research. 

There have also been fears that bringing all research funding into one organisation could threaten the “dual support” system, whereby funds are distributed both to fund specific new research proposals, and in a block grant (quality related funding) based on past university performance assessed through the research excellence framework.

The White Paper seeks to assuage these concerns, saying that the government “is committed to maintaining separate budgets for the UK wide competitive project funding and the England-only research funding, which is largely allocated on a block grant basis”.

It adds that future legislation will “enshrine the principle of dual support…for the first time”.

There have also been concerns that the new structure could allow politicians to tinker with research priorities. Ministers will, as now, be able to set the budgets for the research councils within UKRI and “will retain the ability to provide high level direction as to the allocation of funding for research and innovation”.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said that it was still unclear exactly how the relationship between the research councils, the new UKRI board and chief executive, and the minister would work.

“If the decision [on research council budgets] is still being made in BIS [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills]…then you have to ask what’s actually in the power of the UKRI chief executive and board,” he said. 

However, the White Paper stops short of creating a new ministerial committee – proposed by Sir Paul’s report – that would have assessed and advised on UKRI proposals. The chancellor George Osborne had been tipped to head such a body.

In January, the business secretary Sajid Javid was lukewarm about the idea when quizzed by MPs, suggesting it had been dropped.

Instead, the White Paper recommends that the chair of UKRI joins the existing Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology (CST) as a way of better linking up politicians and research.

The CST will also periodically assess “what government’s overarching priorities for science and technology should be”, allowing a “more effective forum for engagement between policymakers and research funders”.

The White Paper also says that “there are currently ten arms’-length Government bodies operating in the higher education and research space. We will reduce this to two”, indicating that the existing research councils will lose their independent legal status.

It also emerged that the reorganisation will be led by John Kingman, a former Rothschild banker and second permanent secretary to the Treasury, reported the Financial Times.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that his appointment to the role was likely be seen as good news by the sector, given that he was widely seen as being the driving force in the Treasury behind the emphasis on science and innovation that had characterised the chancellorships of Gordon Brown and George Osborne.

Mr Kingman, whose father was vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, was “recognised as the major cheerleader for science and innovation in the Treasury”, he said. 


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