The budget has finally given UKRI a strategic purpose

Focusing on how to deliver the UK government’s big ambitions for science could arrest the troubled funder’s drift, says John Womersley 

March 16, 2020
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UK Research and Innovation delivers one of the best research programmes in the world. Its processes are rigorous and it has an extremely dedicated staff. Nonetheless, two years on from its creation, it has yet to properly demonstrate its strategic value. What exactly has the UK gained from bringing seven research councils, plus the business-facing Innovate UK and block-grant funder Research England, under one roof?

Clarity of vision and mission seems lacking, despite – or perhaps because of – a rapidly growing head office bureaucracy. Moreover, insiders say that relationships with the Treasury and Number 10 are not what they need to be, especially when the UK has one of the most pro-science Prime Minister’s offices in recent times. No wonder morale is reputedly poor.

No wonder, you might also speculate, that the search for a replacement for retiring chief executive, Sir Mark Walport, has involved two deadline extensions and a highly unusual plea for additional candidates. What exactly is the job all about, after all?

Last week’s Budget provided the pointers. Whatever you may think of its broader policies, the UK government has laid out a clear idea of how science and innovation should drive the post-Brexit UK economy, and has committed significant extra resources to facilitate this.

The aim to “level up” investment across the UK and spend 2.4 per cent of GDP on research – including establishing a UK Advanced Research Projects Agency – finally offers compelling answers to the questions: “Why UKRI? Why now? And what will success look like?” And it makes the decision on who to appoint as Sir Mark’s successor all the more urgent.

But how should the appointee approach the task at hand? First, they should rebuild the senior team, and lay out a clear vision and strategic direction for staff and stakeholders, to restore morale and trust. Like the European framework programmes, UKRI should be seen as a coherent collection of funding “pillars”, each optimised for its own task.

The mission of what we may call the “excellence” pillar – the research councils and Research England – should be clearly defined as building and sustaining the capacity of the UK’s core research infrastructure. Peer-reviewed excellence would remain the primary criterion, but processes should be simplified in search of economies. Do we really need two parallel systems – block grants (quality-related funding) and project grants – to support excellence?

Equally, the role of Innovate UK needs to be looked at, particularly its catapult centres. These were established in 2011 to promote business-led collaboration with academic scientists in specific areas. However, with some honourable exceptions, what have they achieved?

The new head shouldn’t just be in the business of seeking economies though. The increased research funding should go hand in hand with new delivery mechanisms. 

The new UK Arpa – which received an £800 million funding commitment in the Budget – should be set up as a new pillar of UKRI, with the goal to support research that addresses pressing problems. A call under this pillar might seek a solution to (say) chronic alcohol-related health issues in (say) Scotland. It would not specify where the research was done – it could even be the US for all we care – because what UKRI would be “buying” is the solution, fast – not the research capacity.

Another urgent priority is to define the UK’s future relationship with the EU research programmes. As I have previously written in Times Higher Education, I believe the case for full association with Horizon Europe will be hard to make, but, either way, UKRI needs a new, well-funded international pillar to attract the best global talent to the UK, with generous research grants and an attractive visa regime.

In line with the government’s regional agenda, there is also a need to establish a well-funded UKRI pillar specifically to invest in the regions, to “level up” capacity by allowing excellence to take root where it does not yet exist. UK productivity has flatlined since the financial crisis of 2008, and while the data are complex, this appears linked to a very unequal distribution of investment, especially research investment.

A call under this new pillar might, for example, offer £250 million to establish a research institute in (say) Newcastle and £25 million a year to run it. But it should be initially agnostic on the institute's mission, organisation and goals, allowing good ideas to come forward before selecting the best.

There is also a strong case for moving UKRI’s headquarters out of London. I’d suggest the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus in the north west, which is already owned by UKRI and will be less than an hour and a half from London when the new high-speed rail line, HS2, is completed. This would send a clear message about change of political focus towards the regions and allow a downsizing of staff.

All of this would result in UKRI overseeing a portfolio of five distinct pillars – excellence, international, innovation, place-based and challenge-based – each with clear, complementary goals in support of a coherent overall mission.

None of this is easy, but it is all important – too important not to deliver. Whoever the new UKRI chief executive is, they will need the UK science base’s full support to make this programme – or something like it – a success.

John Womersley is director-general of the European Spallation Source and was chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council between 2011 and 2016.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UKRI now has a mission

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