Ongoing UK Research Problems (3) – Governing Science

(June 27th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

Well before the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum, the UK’s Conservative government had been planning for major changes to the organisation and funding of scientific research and universities. In May 2016, the government proposed a new bill incorporating recommendations from the so-called Nurse review on UK research.

In line with the UK government’s “austerity” programme since 2010, it had been seeking ways to reduce government debt by cutting costs. It had asked all departments to propose big cuts of up to 40% for the next 4 year spending cycle. The government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), responsible for scientific research in the UK, commissioned a major review to find ways to increase the efficiency of its science funding. The review was led by the Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist, Sir Paul Nurse, currently director of the huge new Francis Crick biomedical research institute in London.

Most of BIS’s research funding has been through its seven research councils – e.g. the Medical Research Council (MRC) or the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) - that award each year some £3 billion in grants to investigators in their respective disciplines. The main recommendation of the Nurse review was the creation of a new supervisory organisation (to be called Research UK) that would coordinate and support the research councils. However, Nurse said the councils should not be merged because he feared that this “would lessen agility of funding, create more distance between managers and bench scientists, and make it harder to recruit top staff”. Nurse also warned BIS not to pinch pennies: “Eliminating smaller grants, excessive concentration of the research effort, and the imposition of restrictions on who can respond to funding calls, are examples of policy changes that might marginally reduce administration costs, but can also significantly damage research activity.”

Although Research UK would be independent from government, Sir Paul further suggested there should be a ministerial committee (chaired by a senior minister), which would interact with the overseeing council. He told the BBC that the plan would put “science at the heart of government”.

The UK government considered the recommendations of the Nurse review and in May 2016, it presented a White Paper - “Success as a Knowledge Economy” - with details of its new laws for reorganising UK research and higher education. As an indication of its desire to see a further shift in research emphasis towards the economy, the new body would be called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) rather than simply Research UK.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield University, noted that the biggest change for research appeared to be in the “governance” of UKRI. To ensure “strong and empowered leadership,” UKRI’s board would have responsibility for “overall strategic direction, cross-cutting decision making, and advice to the Secretary of State on the balance of funding between research disciplines.” Ministers would directly appoint UKRI’s board, supported by a central staff, who would gradually take over functions from the seven research councils (such as procurement, human resources, and communications) while reducing their existing staffing levels to “enable the research councils to deliver their envisaged 17 per cent reduction in headcount by 2020”. Wilsdon initially thought this sounded like a good idea, but a month later, when the actual text of the Bill was finally presented, he was writing about “Growing concerns over blueprint for UKRI and research”.

The establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) would create a “nine-headed hydra” with an annual budget of over £6bn, that would not only absorb the seven existing research councils, but also Innovate UK (the UK's innovation agency). UKRI would also be responsible (through a new committee called Research England) for overseeing the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and allocating the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) “quality-related” research funding to universities in England (that is currently determined using the REF).

The astronomer royal, Lord Martin Rees, who had just finished criticising the government’s attempt to impose a gagging order on publicly-funded research (see Part 2) now wrote in the Guardian that “The proposed reforms to UK research are needlessly drastic” and argued against “the risk and distraction of a wholesale and controversial reorganisation”. In particular, many questions were being raised about the implications of the Bill for the autonomy and leadership of the existing research councils (downgraded in the Bill to the status of UKRI “committees”). A key question was where the exact lines of authority and responsibility lie across the Secretary of State, UKRI chief executive, UKRI board and the executive chairs of the research committees (formerly the seven councils). In particular, the explicit rights of the Secretary of State and UKRI chief executive with regard to strategic planning, set out in the Bill, were not matched by a commitment to consult with the research committees or their constituent scientific communities. Wilsdon noted, “this is a significant weakening of the current protections of the research councils afforded by Royal Charter status.”

As explained in the next part, although very few UK scientists may have been aware of it, their academic freedom has been ‘protected’ from direct government control by Royal Charters, a form of legal status that pre-dates the UK parliament.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 07.28.2017