Research security checks ‘cost universities £11 million a year’

Government red tape on foreign research collaborations is ‘overwhelming’ and ‘demoralising’ staff, says report, which calls for national ‘clearing house’ to ease security assessments

March 8, 2023
Man held back by red tape

Research security checks are costing UK universities nearly £11 million a year, according to a study, which recommends the creation of an independent body to advise academics about risky research collaborations.

In a study on due diligence requirements, the Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Arma) found that one in five institutions was spending between £50,000 and £100,000 a year directly on checking whether potential research collaborations would fall foul of new government rules on research security and ethics, while 63 per cent spent up to £50,000 a year.

Based on a survey of research managers, “we can conservatively estimate that due diligence may be costing the sector between £9.5 million and £10.8 million per annum depending on the complexity of cases”, says the Arma study, published on 6 March.

About three-quarters of universities and 88 per cent of funders and sector bodies surveyed added that they “expect costs to increase slightly or significantly in the year ahead”, reports the study, which was based on a nine-month investigation funded by Research England.

The growing costs of research compliance come amid increased scrutiny of UK-China research links, particularly partnerships involving firms and universities, some of which have now closed.

One research manager interviewed said the “cumulative effect of dealing with increasing requirements, regulation, and legislation in an under-resourced team” was “overwhelming” and “demoralising”, adding that they felt they were “drowning” in research compliance red tape. A lack of guidance and training on due diligence was also a problem, while such checks were viewed as “unnecessary bureaucracy” by some researchers, they added.

Another added that “people are walking away from projects” because they were unable to carry out the required checks in a timely fashion.

To improve the situation, the Arma report recommends the creation of a national “clearing house” where UK universities could deposit information on potential or existing overseas research partners, which could then be shared with other institutions as they made their checks.

Some 95 per cent of survey respondents agreed that such a “research due diligence exchange” service would help to cut the amount of resources spent on research checks, with this intervention likely to lead to a 46 per cent efficiency saving, says the report, which calls for five years of initial funding to get the project off the ground.

“There is a strong sense that any solution would need to be developed and hosted by an independent organisation to build credibility,” notes the report, which calls for “endorsement and engagement of stakeholders across the research and innovation ecosystem [to ensure that the project is] effective and authoritative”.

The proposed clearing house was raised by expert witnesses as they gave evidence to the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

Addressing MPs on 1 March, Sir Anthony Finkelstein, a former national security adviser who is now president of City, University of London, said “better support for open-source due diligence would be a valuable complement to what universities currently do”, while also urging the government to provide “simplicity” in its legal advice and regulatory requirement regarding overseas research collaborations.

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