A five-year strategy for UK research

UK Research and Innovation has realised the ambitions of the 2015 Nurse review to create a single voice for UK research strategy. Debbie McVitty boils down the five-year plan

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

When Paul Nurse recommended the creation of a single UK-wide research organisation in his 2015 review of the research councils, one of the key rationales for the move was stronger and better coordinated research strategy across the various organisations active in the UK research landscape.

Nurse expressed the benefits in this way:

A major objective will be to strengthen the strategic thinking of the research community and to provide an effective way to communicate that voice to Government.

The new five-year strategy of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) illustrates the value of that single voice on research strategy, articulating, as Nurse envisioned, a set of broad goals relating to UK geographies, global connectivity, and improving coordination and connection across a multi-disciplinary ecosystem tuned in to national and global challenges.

But Nurse’s formulation of the UK research strategy being one that is implicitly owned by the research community and merely “communicated” to government is not the case.

In fact, since the establishing of UKRI in 2018, most of the major pronouncements on national research direction have come from government, with the R&D roadmap, the 2.4 per cent of GDP invested in R&D target, the people and culture strategy, the integrated review of security, defence, development, and foreign policy, the levelling up white paper, and the life sciences vision, not to mention the creation of the independent Advanced Research and Invention Agency, and the National Council for Science and Technology.

This is a government, in short, that wants to “own” research – and make the UK a science superpower. That comes with a great deal of benefit for the research and science community, particularly in terms of increased investment. And there’s no doubt that UKRI and the wider research community had a strong hand in shaping much of government policy on R&D.

But it also, we speculate, makes it difficult to focus, with science and research now carrying the weight of national and ministerial hopes and expectations on economic growth and rebalancing, Britain’s security and standing in the world, and our identity as a nation of creative, problem-solving innovators equipped to deliver on net zero, public health, and social inequality.

And given UKRI already had the not-inconsiderable task of bringing together multiple organisations under one umbrella – to say nothing of the egos involved – it’s not all that surprising that it’s taken the best part of four years to produce its first five year strategy – nor that the scale and breadth of its strategic aspirations is enormous.

What is in the strategy

There are four “principles for change”: diversity, connectivity, resilience, and engagement, which pop up throughout as a framing analysis of what needs to change in the research landscape and how change will be accomplished.

And there are six grand objectives focused on people and careers, places, ideas, innovation, impacts, and UKRI as an organisation.

UKRI takes seriously its role as a cheerleader for research – and while the encomiums to the UK’s world-leading research base are entirely justified, you probably already know them. So here I’ll strip those out and focus on UKRI’s analysis of what needs to change and how.

Diversity and flexibility of research careers. The current system has too narrow measures of success and excellence, and tends to undervalue some of the skills that contribute to the whole research endeavour. In the long term developing and attracting diversity of talent at home and abroad requires changing research culture that can make the most of diverse skill sets, rather than trying to increase diversity within the current narrow framework. Open research, incentivising cross-sector mobility, broader skills development, and a friendly visa regime are key elements of the strategy.

A stronger alignment between research and place through connecting different actors – universities, research institutes, investors, charities, policymakers and the public – and strengthening existing research clusters. The strategy also undertakes to improve the financial sustainability of research organisations and to secure cutting edge infrastructures for research (supercomputers, communication networks, large-scale facilities and so on). But while there’s an undertaking to make the tough decisions about allocation of resources across places and different kinds of organisations, there’s not the kind of priority setting as yet that would unequivocally direct funds in one direction and not another.

Greater connectivity across disciplines, sectors, and geographies to foster creative ideas. The idea here is to make funding systems more agile and responsive (“a toolbox of funding mechanisms”), fostering collaboration, recognising teams as well as individuals, and removing barriers to multi- and inter-disciplinary research. Lots to agree with here, but it will be interesting to see exactly how funding systems evolve to address these aspirations.

More, and better, innovation. Given the UK innovation strategy published last year, and pending findings of the Nurse review of the research, development and innovation landscape, the most UKRI can undertake to do here is broadly invest in innovation, commercialisation, translation and knowledge exchange, both directly and via growing capabilities. The big challenge here is stimulating private sector investment – both to realise the economic benefits of public investment in research and to meet the 2.4 per cent investment of GDP in R&D by 2027. The clock is ticking.

Targeting investment in global challenges – and in doing so secure the UK’s competitive advantage in key technologies and sectors. Not an industrial strategy, exactly, but UKRI’s decision to adopt five broad themes (net zero, health and wellbeing, infectious diseases, security and resilience, and disparities in opportunities and outcomes) aligned to national priorities, and plans to invest in national programmes to create a strategic advantage in key technologies and boost industries and sectors that rely on R&D could do some of the work the now-abandoned May government’s industrial strategy hoped to accomplish.

Being even more UKRI. Lots of organisations probably want to foster creative connections and break down silos, streamline and reduce bureaucracy, automate processes, and work transparently and in partnership with stakeholders, but if you think about the various constituent parts of UKRI and how it functions as a kind of microcosm of the research ecosystem then achieving this at small scale could actually have a meaningful impact on the degree of change in the wider system. The Grant review of UKRI is due to report by summer 2022, and will consider the efficiency, efficacy, and accountability of the organisation as a whole, which will form the backdrop for ongoing efforts in this area.

There’s more detail to come on performance indicators, strategic delivery plans for each of UKRI’s nine Councils, and of course the annual operating plan. But now, seven years after Nurse proposed that there should be one big UK-wide research organisation, the thicket of government R&D policy has been hacked through and a direction of travel for UK research articulated. It remains to be seen whether having a single strategy can leverage the sort of change that Nurse anticipated.

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