The public must have a role in forming any UK research missions

If the point of missions is to win taxpayers’ support for an increased science budget, accountability will be vital, says Harry Farmer

October 21, 2019

The past couple of weeks have provided some interesting new clues as to the Johnson government’s vision for UK research and development.

As well as upholding the previous administration’s targets to increase R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, the government is planning a major overhaul of how the extra money will be allocated.

The briefing document for last week’s Queen’s Speech spoke about “a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology…to support visionary scientific, engineering, and technology missions”, including the creation of a UK equivalent of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The previous week, universities and science minister Chris Skidmore hinted at plans to create a five-year research funding framework, centred around “strategic missions” and taking in all R&D spending currently funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: an arrangement that would loosely resemble the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. 

While plenty remains unclear, the signs point to a major shift in thinking about how best to fund and nurture innovation, from the more laissez-faire attitude of 10 years ago towards what looks like a decidedly interventionist, goal-orientated strategy.

On the face of it, this is welcome – and testament to a growing realisation that innovation does not automatically bring public benefit in the absence of careful guidance around societal priorities and distributional outcomes. But big questions remain about balance and accountability under the new system.

The recent announcements could be read as the government’s attempt to “take back control” of R&D spending from a complex network of public bodies. If so, the government needs to lay out just who it intends to hand this control to, and how they will be held accountable. Above all, it will need to demonstrate how it will avoid giving a small group of ministers and civil servants a blank cheque to shape how all new R&D money is distributed.

One of the government’s main justifications for the move to a mission-oriented approach is apparently to secure public buy-in for increased R&D spending – on the basis that the public need to understand what they are getting for their money. But while this is true, it is only half the picture. Public acceptance also hinges on broad agreement that those objectives are priorities.

In the short term, therefore, ministers will need to commit to far more than consulting on a Green Paper on the proposals. There is a pressing need for early, meaningful public engagement on how the new system would work: what criteria will be used to choose missions, how the public will be able to influence the decisions, and how balance and accountability will be ensured. Luckily, there is an increasingly wide and sophisticated array of deliberative techniques that could be used for this purpose.

In the longer term, the government needs to be prepared to act on the results of these early engagement exercises, building in mechanisms to give the public a real and ongoing say in how R&D money is spent. A longstanding problem is the UK's tendency to direct money disproportionately to existing success stories – prioritising expected return on investment over the longer-term need to redress regional or sectoral inequality. It is easy to imagine how a heavily mission-oriented approach to R&D funding might exacerbate these problems should the missions be chosen or framed without sufficient care.

A set of missions disproportionately framed around technological challenges, for instance, could lead to money being directed almost exclusively towards advanced scientific facilities in London, Oxford and Cambridge. It’s also easy to imagine how ministers and civil servants, if left to their own devices, might end up choosing such challenges. UK Research and Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund provides a good example of the tendency to frame challenges around technology sectors where the UK happens to be a world leader. Clear accountability to the public will be a vital counterbalance to this phenomenon.

Otherwise, while the transition to mission-led R&D funding may improve technological and financial outcomes, it won’t improve enough lives to be politically sustainable.

Harry Farmer is senior policy adviser on inclusive innovation at Nesta, the innovation foundation.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Accountability is vital

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