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Growing concerns over blueprint for UKRI and research

There are growing grumbles about UKRI and the Higher Education and Research Bill's proposals for the research landscape. James Wilsdon unpicks the concerns and grumbles and sets out how they might influence the debate as Parliament gears up for the debate.
This article is more than 8 years old

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at University College London and executive director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI)

As the Higher Education and Research Bill approaches its second reading, debate across the community has been largely focused on the first part of the Bill (which covers the Office for Students, new providers and regulatory powers). But now a growing rumble of unease can be heard about part three, which outlines reforms to the research system and the establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

This nine-headed hydra, with an annual budget of over £6bn, will absorb the existing research councils and Innovate UK while also (through a new committee called Research England) overseeing the REF and allocating HEFCE’s quality-related funding in England.

Since Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils was published last November, BIS ministers, senior officials and Nurse himself have been at pains to emphasise that these changes would have only modest implications for the operation of the research funding system. Giving evidence to the House of Commons science and technology committee in December 2015, Nurse was explicit on this point:

“I could not have been clearer in my recommendation that the research councils should remain as distinct entities…It is not a merger: neither the conception I had nor the recommendation. So that it is completely clear, I think our research councils have worked extremely effectively, and they are considered very effective around the world. To merge them would lose many things, and I would like the Committee to be fully aware of that. It would be disruptive; it would reduce agility, which is an aspect I looked at; and getting good leadership would be more difficult…I imagine the research councils working as they are.”

Some remained unconvinced by Nurse’s balancing act, as I described on Wonkhe at the time. But when the White Paper was published on 16 May, it seemed that many concerns – particularly over maintaining the autonomy of the existing councils – had been addressed. As I wrote last month, the tone of the research section of the White Paper was encouraging, as was its pledge that “the seven research discipline areas will continue to have strong and autonomous leadership”, and the nine “Councils will be responsible for the strategic leadership of their disciplines and on scientific, research and innovation matters.”

John Kingman, newly installed as non-executive chair of UKRI, sounded similarly reassuring in a piece for THE where he committed “to ensure that the transition to UKRI retains the huge strengths and values of all these bodies, and the autonomy that they need to serve their communities.”

But with the text of the Bill now in front of us, perceptions of a gap between its language and that of the White Paper is prompting concern. Last week, Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, came out in the Guardian as a full-blown UKRI-sceptic. Writing that “I am one of many in the scientific community who share anxieties that these changes are needlessly drastic,” Rees argued against “the risk and distraction of a wholesale and controversial reorganisation.”

For one former president of the Royal Society (Rees) to criticise the proposals of another (Nurse) so publicly is unusual, and an indicator of the level of disquiet in the upper ranks of the research community. It also gives a flavour of the opposition that may be mounted against UKRI in the upper house. Indeed, Rees makes clear that “when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, I hope to be one of those calling on the government to shelve the Nurse proposals.” Several peers with higher education and science links are known to share his views; even Lord Willetts is thought to harbour certain reservations about the Nurse proposals.

Willetts’ former adviser, Nick Hillman, warned last month that: “If I had to predict where the Bill could have the most difficult time, it is on the research changes…Remember, the House of Lords is more willing to flex its muscles than in the past and the Conservatives no longer have a majority in there.” He may yet be proved right.

A further intervention on UKRI is expected this week from the Academy of Social Sciences. In a briefing to its fellows and learned society members the AcSS will praise aspects of the White Paper and Bill and highlight the positive potential of UKRI to facilitate more interdisciplinary ways of working. But it will also raise questions about how UKRI will operate in practice, and propose amendments to the Bill to address certain ambiguities.

Concerns are also being expressed in private by the current leadership of the research councils as they absorb the implications of the Bill. As one senior figure said to me last week: “The bill is a messy compromise, a hotchpotch. Let’s be honest, in the name of simplification, it’s creating a new and additional layer of bureaucracy. We’ve gone from a period in which more nimble and focused public bodies were in vogue to one in which massive conglomerated bodies are seen as the answer. Couldn’t all of this be achieved through a strengthened Council for Science and Technology? The answer has to be yes.”

There are a number of issues provoking debate:

1) Autonomy, leadership and strategic planning

Both Lord Rees and the AcSS are raising questions 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 is 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, are not matched by a commitment to consult with the research committees or their constituent communities.

BIS (and its predecessor departments) has always had a role in developing strategic research priorities, but the actual process of this is supple in ways that the current text of the bill does not capture. In the name of simplification, the Bill adds four layers of authority above the executive chairs of the RCs, which will be a distinct change in political practice. Currently, the process of research planning involves two-way conversations between BIS, the research councils and their research communities. The AcSS argues that a formal requirement for such consultation should be enshrined in the Bill, in advance of any strategic plans being set by UKRI.

While Nurse called for the heads of the existing research councils to sit on the UKRI board, this provision is not in the Bill. So a further amendment may propose that all research committee executive chairs join the main UKRI board, to ensure that they retain a voice in the top layer of decision-making.

2) Long term stability

Another issue is the freedom that the Bill gives to amend or alter the line-up of research committees in future. In paragraph 87, the Bill makes clear that ‘The Secretary of State may by regulations — (a) amend the first column of the table in subsection (1) in consequence of provision made by regulations under section 84; (b) amend the second column of that table.” This means that ministers may change or alter the committee/council line-up at any time simply through regulation, with the exception of Innovate UK and Research England, which have additional protections.

This is a significant weakening of the current protections of the research councils afforded by Royal Charter status. Any changes in the naming or remit of the research committees would no longer require parliamentary debate, but could be made through “a statutory instrument … laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.” Given the frequency with which such statutory instruments are used, this means that changes could be rubber stamped in an undebated vote.

As one senior figure in the research councils said to me last week: “There’s been an unhelpful emphasis from Nurse onwards that no-one in the research community should panic, that this isn’t a merger, and the reforms won’t substantively change anything. But now it’s clear that this is, in any meaningful sense, a merger. And that it gives ministers permission to further merge, rearrange or abolish the research committees at a later stage.”

Of course, no-one is suggesting that nothing should ever change in the line-up of UKRI’s research committees. But the AcSS is proposing an amendment to the effect that such changes should take place only after consultation and parliamentary debate, as is envisaged for Research England and Innovate UK.

3) Definitions of key terms and functions

UKRI’s core functions are described in the Bill as to “carry out research into science, technology, humanities and new ideas” (paragraph 85). This is an unusual formulation: neither “science” in all-inclusive Wissenschaft mode, as is often used in policy documents, nor a comprehensive description of the main groupings in the research landscape. Although lower down in the definitions section (paragraph 102), there is clarification that ‘“science” includes social science, and “humanities” includes the arts, many in those communities would like to see all of these terms listed explicitly in UKRI’s terms of reference – especially given the flexibility that the Bill currently provides for committees to be changed or axed at the whim of ministers.

A modest amendment could deal with this issue, and ensure that the formulation of UKRI’s functions throughout the bill (notably paragraphs 85 and 99) explicitly reflects all relevant fields, and better reflects the research committees listed in paragraph 87.

There are other oddities in paragraph 85. Why, for example, are humanities excluded from the drive for “development and exploitation” (para 85, 1c)? I wonder what the drafters of that particular clause would make of J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings trilogy generated almost $6 billion at the box office? And why is UKRI required to “promote awareness and understanding”, in old-fashioned deficit mode, but not to “engage” in a two-way dialogue with wider society, as has been the norm in policy documents since at least 2000?

4) The future of Innovate UK

Drawing Innovate UK into the UKRI fold remains one of the most controversial aspects of these reforms. Nurse himself was somewhat ambivalent at the prospect but left the option sufficiently open for BIS to proceed (following a hasty additional consultation). Neither partner in this shotgun marriage is particularly happy: the innovation lobby fears that its funding will come under pressure from the research side; and the research councils worry that innovation support will grow at their expense if and when ministerial priorities change.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee is now taking a fresh look at this issue, in light of the more detailed UKRI proposals in the Bill. The committee’s conclusions are likely to sway opinion in the Lords and could prompt further amendments to draw Innovate UK back out on its own.

5) Upheaval and planning blight

A further worry – less about the text of the bill and more about its cumulative effects – is that the UKRI reforms will generate huge disruption for unknown benefits. This lies at the heart of Lord Rees’ objection. Reminding us of the National Audit Office inquiry into the research councils shared services function in 2008, which found that overheads went up, not down, Rees notes that “it is seductive to believe that reshuffling the administrative structure will achieve [improvements], but it may…indeed be counterproductive.”

A further concern expressed in private by senior figures in the research councils is the “planning blight” that will result from a prolonged period of uncertainty as they wait for the Bill to proceed through Parliament and then measures implemented. When John Kingman’s appointment as UKRI’s chair was announced, there was some expectation that he might set a more immediate strategic direction. But those who have met with Kingman in recent days say that he is mostly focused on hiring the right chief executive, and has no plans to determine UKRI’s direction ahead of that. As one well-placed source told me: “Kingman isn’t the Moses we’ve been waiting for. The strategic questions that need to be addressed are being pushed further into the middle distance.” That said, Kingman has indicated that he wants to move quickly to identify a chief executive, and have them in post by early 2017 as part of a “shadow UKRI” ahead of its formal launch (assuming safe passage of the Bill) on 1 April 2018.

Mood swings in Polaris House

The current research council chief executives are said to be coming to terms with these changes “gradually and with a range of different reactions”. Those hired recently, or as interim appointments, are generally more supportive of the UKRI proposals. They see new opportunities, especially for poorly funded areas like arts and humanities. “Some find it attractive, even liberating to play a diminished role. They will lose the access – and also the pressures – that come from dealing with ministers.”

But those who are used to operating larger councils with greater autonomy and strategic flexibility are more concerned, especially about the loss of budgetary authority and political access. “I find Nurse’s statements about freeing up the time of the CEOs from such burdens to be completely risible,” one told me. The Medical Research Council has been most resistant to the proposed changes, because of its budgetary clout and distinguished history, but Sir John Savill, MRC’s CEO, is now reported to be playing ball, grudgingly.

Beneath the chief executive layer, the jostling has also started, as senior staff position themselves for influence and jobs in the new UKRI structure. There’s a gradual realisation that existing RCUK responsibilities won’t simply carry across into UKRI. People are unsure how to play this: whether to make sure that they are in the room designing the new structures, or whether close involvement at the design stage will rule them out of applying for the actual jobs.

There is considerable scepticism about the “business case” for UKRI, published on 7 June. One senior source described it to me as “BIS’s very own dodgy dossier…This is policy-based evidence making at its best. The costs are unknown, the savings are wild guesses, and the options analysis doesn’t include real options – such as whether or not to include Innovate UK.” Similar doubts have been expressed about the legal justification that BIS draws on in the White Paper – that UKRI is needed because of legal constraints, which inhibit cross-council, interdisciplinary working. “If these legal barriers are so insurmountable, why were they never raised when shared services or cross-council activities were proposed over the past few years?”

UKRI: tears before bedtime?

For UKRI – as for the entire Bill – uncertainties lie ahead. If Brexit wins on Thursday all bets will be off as the parliamentary timetable spins into freefall. But whatever the outcome a post-referendum ministerial reshuffle could also signal some late changes, particularly if opposition is mounting elsewhere. As one seasoned BIS observer said to me last week: “What we see in UKRI is a solution designed to serve a very particular political need: the desire of the current science minister to remove himself from this level of decision making.” Jo Johnson is said to be comfortable at the prospect of handing strategic choices over research priorities and major investments to UKRI’s CEO and board. But his predecessors, including David Willetts, would have resisted the loss of this capacity for high-level influence over the system. “So you have a solution that works right now, for the minister in post, but might not work in a month’s time.” As Smita Jamdar joked on Twitter last week, let’s hope Jo Johnson or one of his successors doesn’t end up singing Sinatra…

7 responses to “Growing concerns over blueprint for UKRI and research

  1. We must assume for now that the Bill will be taken forward.

    Two issues of concern to me – the process and resource for filling the strategic research and innovation gap that Paul Nurse identifies and the need to design UKRI so that the heads of Research Councils are still attractive roles for top academics – are being pursued by others and I will not discuss them further here.

    My third concern (which I have not seen discussed elsewhere) relates to the corporate governance of individual Research Councils in an UKRI world. From time to time Research Councils encounter choppy waters; it will happen again. The role of the Chairs and Councils in providing tough love for the Chief Executive has been crucial in these few but important cases in the past – very much like the role of the Chair and Board of a company in relation to the Chief Executive. It is not clear to me how Executive Chairs will be given tough love when they need it under the UKRI structure. Neither UKRI nor the department are (or will be, in the case of UKRI) set up to be strongly wired into the relevant disciplinary community in the way Councils are at present. And the structure in which the Chief Executive is also Chair of the relevant Council means that Council members will in effect be advisers to the Executive Chair rather than having a supervisory role. Under current arrangements the Chair and Council can lead and broker engagement when needed; this is particularly important when the Chief Executive may need help. While the Bill is going through I suggest that Parliament is encouraged to seek clearer arrangements for this key corporate governance role; if unaddressed it will store up difficulties for the future.

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