Alistair Fitt is Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and is Research Lead for University Alliance.
Like most disturbances to the status quo, the plan to merge Britain’s research and innovation funding agencies into a single body has been met with fierce opposition.
Lord Rees, astronomer royal and a former president of the Royal Society, used the phrase “needlessly drastic” in an article back in June, while anonymous sources quoted on Wonkhe threw-in terms like “risible” and “messy compromise”.
Resistance to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which will be created by the Higher Education and Research Bill, peaked in the early part of the summer. The tone since has softened somewhat, and the EU referendum result has at least succeeded in diverting attention.
The national academies, who were previously sceptical of UKRI, have switched to a more supportive stance on the research aspects of the Bill. Amendments tabled by the government during the Commons Committee Stage showed willingness (albeit tentative) to listen to the sector’s concerns, particularly over the arts and humanities. The last major obstacle in sight is the House of Lords, which is expected to push back against the fundamentals of the reform.
To be sure, the statutory basis for UKRI is not without its blemishes. Governance arrangements for the research councils, Innovate UK and Research England could be better articulated in the drafting, and their protections could be strengthened. The Bill is blind to research and innovation skills development and knowledge exchange activities. Nor does it place a duty on UKRI to promote fair and open competition for funding, which it should.
If you look carefully, however, the opportunities arising from UKRI outweigh the legislative challenges.
First, it is easy to see how UKRI is strengthening Britain’s voice abroad. While we already have a global reputation for research excellence, having a body that represents the whole research community will be a powerful tool for diplomacy as we negotiate our way out of the EU. Those who say UKRI is too much of distraction in the context of Brexit should consider whether jeopardising the government’s plan is a more effective way of getting what we want.
Second, UKRI is set to benefit multidisciplinary research. Although RCUK has made progress on this in recent years, an integrated body with a common funding pot is an optimal design for supporting research on cross-cutting challenges.
Third, UKRI can fund research excellence across the whole of the sector through transparent and open competitions. At present, some research councils run schemes that are closed-off to many participants. UKRI is an opportunity to create a shared back office system which enables wider interaction. The latter will be particularly important if Britain loses access to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and our contribution is instead retained and allocated through UKRI. Compared to domestic funding sources like Research Council or QR, Horizon 2020 has the advantage of being less concentrated and more effective at funding excellence wherever it exists.
Fourth, a joint research and innovation strategy can increase knowledge exchange and mobility between universities and businesses. Provided Innovate UK retains its business-facing function, and core knowledge exchange funding is retained, the closer integration of research and innovation can be beneficial for both.
Finally, UKRI can pave the way towards better data collection through the establishment of a national research analysis unit. The chair of the new body, Sir John Kingman, has already set out his vision for a ‘strategic brain’ at the heart of UKRI, drawing together dispersed data sets and analysis expertise, all of which should be welcomed.
The message to those voicing opposition is this: rather than risk the good will that exists between the higher education sector and Whitehall, our energy is surely better spent on making UKRI work. Anything less will only make it harder to influence government in the harsh climate ahead.