The UKRI monopoly risks stifling innovation

Ministers are foolish to abandon the conclusions of the 1971 review that has informed UK research policy for 45 years, say Donald Braben and John Dainton 

September 28, 2017
Puppeteer

“In our view it is illogical on the one hand to assert the unity of science and the fluidity of its internal boundaries, and on the other hand to approve a system of completely independent Research Councils, each of which can only operate within relatively rigid boundaries set by its individual charter.”

These words, from Sir Frederick Dainton’s 1971 review of the UK research councils, were quoted earlier this year by Sir Mark Walport (“Why a shake-up of UK research funding is neededOpinion, February) in defence of the creation of UK Research and Innovation, the controversial new funding behemoth that he will lead. Due to begin operations next April, the body combines the roles of all seven research councils, knowledge transfer body Innovate UK and the research remit of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Unfortunately, Sir Mark’s quotes are extracted from paragraphs 39 and 40 of Dainton’s report. The conclusions are in paragraph 45: “Although our arguments would seem to point to the establishment of a monolithic National Research Council we are opposed to this solution. A single Council given authority and responsibility across the whole range of basic and strategic science might become too remote from the scientists actually carrying out the work; there would be a serious danger that a paralysing bureaucracy might develop. There would also be a risk that if the grant-giving authority were monolithic, its errors would have graver consequences.”

The roadmap drawn up by Dainton was followed by government for the next 45 years. In July, Sir Mark told the BBC that he wants the UK funding system to be “the best in the world” and insisted that, contrary to concerns, he will not centrally direct research. UKRI, he said, will play key roles in encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration and delivering the government's industrial strategy, which aims to leverage UK scientific strengths for the benefit of the economy.

However, it is often not clear which scientific areas have the most economic potential. For instance, in 1975 César Milstein and Georges Köhler, researchers from the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, discovered monoclonal antibodies. The government had already set up a body, the National Research Development Corporation, to ensure that good ideas from academic research realised their economic potential. Yet the committee of senior industrialists, patent lawyers, venture capitalists and financial experts failed to see any value in monoclonal antibodies and turned down Milstein and Köhler’s entreaties to patent them. The discovery went on to earn the researchers the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the omission probably lost the UK taxpayer many hundreds of millions of pounds.

In his Times Higher Education article, Sir Mark wrote that the world is “getting the hang of the idea that research and innovation are crucial to economic growth”. But creating a monolithic body risks imposing a single recipe for innovation that will lead to stagnation.

The discovery of the CRISPR gene editing system in biology, which is now taking the scientific world by storm, was made by scientists in their twenties, following their curiosity in relatively obscure labs in places such Alicante, Spain and Vilnius, Lithuania. Their papers were rejected by leading journals, but the combination of their youthful determination and the freedom that they were afforded allowed them to persist with their research regardless.

If Dainton’s fears about the development of paralysing bureaucracies are realised, such freedom will be in short supply under UKRI. As Sui Huang recently argued in THE, scientific innovation is already being stifled by the routine peer review of grant applications (“Bland peer review needs a pinch of salt”, Opinion, 31 August). Focusing research ever more tightly on national priorities will further encourage short-term research in fashionable fields, ignoring the young. And UKRI’s monopoly on public funding will make such follies disastrous. How will Sir Mark deal with these consequences?

Donald Braben is honorary professor in the department of earth sciences and in the office of the vice-provost (research) at University College London. John Dainton is Sir James Chadwick professor of physics (emeritus) at the University of Liverpool.

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Print headline: Is UKRI too heavy to fly?

Reader's comments (1)

This article makes an excellent point. The problem that I see is that government policy makers and businesses are essentially short term in nature (few ministers, or CEOs last more than five years). Furthermore the economics profession has signally failed to value basic research in a way that leads to effective policies to promote it. This is not an insoluble problem and is recognised in some universities. It needs creative thinking to agree a way to allocate a proportion of research funding to longer term and often poorly defined goals. This has worked, before, with some spectacular results!

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