Tory election victory sets scene for UK research funding battle

Balancing Dominic Cummings’ agenda with industrial strategy approach, and deciding on geographical focus for increased investment, seen as key challenges

December 19, 2019
Source: Alamy

Balancing the “tension” between Dominic Cummings’ science agenda and a more industrial strategy-oriented approach, as well as deciding which places ought to be the focus for increased research and innovation investment, are seen as key challenges for the UK’s new Conservative government.

The Tory manifesto outlined a goal to create “a vibrant science-based economy post-Brexit” after Boris Johnson pledged he would double research and development funding to £18 billion in the next Parliament, promising a major injection of funds for UK universities and research organisations.

Although Mr Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, has sought to advance his personal agenda on science, many caution that he should not be seen as all-powerful in the field.

Stian Westlake, a former adviser to three Conservative science ministers, said that while the manifesto pledges clearly cover “some of the things Dom Cummings has been a strong advocate for”, such as the creation of a UK version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aimed at funding “high-risk, high-payoff research”, there were “a few other ideas in here as well – it looks to me that there’s been some wider consensus in this in terms of people influencing the manifesto”.

The lead pledge on science – to “focus our efforts on areas where the UK can generate a commanding lead in the industries of the future” – was “almost a continuation of the world of industrial strategy”, Mr Westlake said. “There’s a tension between” the two directions in the manifesto, he added.

Mr Cummings is also thought to have suggested the creation of a “super-department” for education focused on research and development spending alongside skills, in a bid to rebalance the economy.

Other science policy figures suggest that the challenge is to accommodate Mr Cummings’ plans while advancing the different agenda being pursued by Chris Skidmore, who was thought to be keen to stay in post as universities and science minister, and who has prioritised the creation of a mission-centred, five-year financial framework, similar to the European Union’s system.

Rachel Wolf, the co-author of the Conservative manifesto, appeared to acknowledge the need to balance different views on science policy in a post-election article in which she emphasised the document’s attention to towns. “There is a reason that the increases in the science and R&D budget [are] focused not only on high-risk new ideas but [also] on regional growth,” she added.

Having previously appeared to view the creation of an Oxbridge “Silicon Valley” as the potential motor of the UK economy, Mr Cummings gave a different impression of his thinking in a blog post written during the election campaign. He advised readers that if they were “interested in ideas about how the new government could really change our economy for the better, making it more productive and fairer”, they should read a 2019 paper by Richard Jones, professor of physics at the University of Sheffield, titled A Resurgence of the Regions: rebuilding innovation capacity across the whole UK.

The scale of support that the Conservatives gained from voters in deindustrialised towns in the Midlands and the north is another factor that may focus Tory minds on the need to spread the benefits of research investment across all UK regions.

Professor Jones told Times Higher Education of the key question to be decided on science policy by the new government: “If you accept the premise that you need to grow the R&D intensity of the economy quite a lot, then the question is where do you do that?

“The argument for doing it in Oxford and Cambridge is that there’s a massive advantage there already in terms of concentration of resources and people and facilities. The downside is…there are constraints to actually growing those places any further.”

Professor Jones argued that it was “inevitable that you will have to put more [research and innovation] capacity in the Midlands and the north. The new electoral base for the Conservative Party makes that even more obvious.”

There was also “the slightly tedious towns versus cities argument”, he added.

“I’m very strongly of the view that you have to start with the cities,” Professor Jones said. “The core cities should be drivers of productivity – and they are not in the UK. And that’s something that’s profoundly wrong about our economy.”

There was a “need to devolve some science or innovation funding to devolved nations and regions”, Professor Jones said.

He highlighted a recent report by the Brookings Institution that said that to address “extreme” US regional “divergence” in innovation performance, eight to 10 “heartland” cities should be selected to receive funding of up to $700 million (£524 million) a year each.

Professor Jones said that the report offered “an interesting way of focusing our minds” and translating these ideas to the UK could mean selecting two cities and giving each “£500 million a year to rebuild their innovation economy”.

He added: “That’s the kind of money you need to be talking about.” 

Listen: John Morgan and Simon Baker discuss what the election results mean for HE


Print headline: Tory election win sets scene for research funding showdown

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