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UKRI if you want to: how to read the new research landscape

With the White Paper making big changes to the research funding and policy landscape, James Wilsdon reviews the new landscape.
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)

From a research policy perspective, I’m encouraged by this week’s White Paper. Reforms to the architecture for research funding, which felt like an afterthought in November’s Green Paper, have now received more thorough treatment. And while uncertainties persist about how the new structures will operate, BIS has clearly put serious thought into the governance arrangements for the research councils, resolving some of the ambiguities in the Nurse Review.

The headline is the creation of a new body, which will draw the seven research councils, Innovate UK and HEFCE’s quality-related funding under a single strategic umbrella. Sir Paul Nurse’s preferred name for this body – Research UK (RUK) – has been quietly dropped, in favour of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI; an acronym which social media quickly decided is pronounced You-Cry).

This name change reflects the late – and still controversial – addition of Innovate UK to the mix, following a rapid consultation in February. But senior sources tell me that a further problem stemmed from the belated discovery that “ruk” roughly translates as “jerk off” in Dutch. While not on the scale of the department’s short-lived rebranding as DPEnIS in 2005, there was reluctance among BIS officials – even as they contemplate Brexit – to let UK research excellence become synonymous with wank in another European language.

The new name is accompanied by a harder-edged rationale for UKRI. In the green paper, the case was made in terms of simplifying structures and reducing bureaucracy. Now, in response to those who queried what problem these reforms were trying to solve, UKRI comes with a legal underpinning. BIS has been helpfully advised by its lawyers that current arrangements for the research councils prevent them from “holding, managing and distributing inter- and multi-disciplinary grants such as those…from the £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund.” So not moving to an integrated structure “presents an increased risk to the UK’s world leading position” in research.

At a strategic and operational level, UKRI’s objectives are laid out in a series of six bullets:

  • a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current funding bodies, such as multi-and inter-disciplinary research;
  • a strengthened, unified voice for the UK’s research and innovation system;
  • improved collaboration between the research base, business and the commercialization of discoveries;
  • better mechanisms for the sharing of expertise and best practice – for example, around management of major projects and large capital investment;
  • more time for research leaders to focus on strategic leadership through the centralisation of back and middle office functions; and
  • improved quality of evidence on the UK’s research and innovation landscape through the pooling of multiple datasets.

Another benefit left unstated, is that UKRI removes at a stroke eight organisations from the roll-call of BIS partner bodies – making a significant contribution to the “BIS 2020” strategy, developed with the help of McKinsey & Co. in the summer of 2015.

The meat of the White Paper’s proposals comes in the discussion of UKRI’s governance. To ensure “strong and empowered leadership,” UKRI’s board will 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 will appoint UKRI’s board, which will be supported by a central staff, who will gradually take on more cross-cutting functions, such as procurement, HR, and communications while staffing levels in the existing councils are reduced. This will enable the research councils to deliver their envisaged 17 per cent reduction in headcount by 2020.

UKRI will also manage cross-disciplinary funds, including the unallocated portion of the £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (which rises fast from nothing this year to £38m in 2017/18, £122m in 18/19, £216 in 19/20 and £315m in 20/21) and an additional multidisciplinary pot that will be top-sliced from the budgets of all seven research councils from 2018 onwards. The precise scale of the latter is still to be agreed, but it is expected to be between three and five per cent of the total, generating a pot of between £100m and £150m.

At the same time, ministers will “retain the ability to provide high-level direction as to the allocation of funding”, which will include “setting hypothecated budgets for UKRI’s nine autonomous Councils.” This goes some way to assuaging concerns over the autonomy and stability of existing research council budgets within the new structure, as does the commitment to enshrine “the distinctive focus and remit of the Councils…in future legislation.” Further reassurances are made about “continued hypothecation” and “maintaining separate budgets” for the quality-related side of the funding system, as it moves from HEFCE to UKRI, with a promise “to enshrine the principle of dual support in legislation for the first time.”

So there are probably enough safeguards in place to reassure critics – including in the House of Lords – and avoid research reforms becoming a stumbling block to the smooth passage of the higher education bill. But given that ministers will make high-level funding decisions based on advice from the UKRI board, the way that these relationships between BIS, UKRI’s board and chief executive, and the leadership of the existing councils, will operate in practice – particularly in terms of budget-setting – is still somewhat unclear.

From 2018, when UKRI becomes fully operational, the chief executives of the current councils and Innovate UK will see their job titles changed to “executive chairs.” They will report to UKRI’s CEO, but won’t have seats on the main UKRI board. And the size of the councils will be reduced to “5-9 other experienced independent members drawn from the relevant community.” On the advice of UKRI’s board, ministers will continue to set budgets for each of the nine councils, and the UKRI CEO “will establish a framework within which the Councils will have delegated authority for their hypothecated budgets.”

In a slightly odd paragraph, the White Paper also reveals that the “names and brands” and “symbolic property” of the research councils will be retained, while the Royal Coat of Arms will be conferred to UKRI. This resolves a longstanding niggle over the Royal Coat of Arms, which the research councils resisted adopting for some years, in an effort to signal their independence from government. I hope that someone in BIS will receive due recognition in the new year’s honours list for winning this particular argument.

As to how UKRI works in practice, a great deal will rest on the leadership style and precedent established by its first chief executive. This week’s announcement that John Kingman will move from HM Treasury to become UKRI’s inaugural chair has been welcomed by research leaders, who recognise his consistent support for science and innovation through successive spending reviews. Kingman’s appointment also suggests that BIS wants to pick up the pace and establish a “shadow” UKRI well ahead of the formal passage of the HE Bill.

It is expected that Kingman will steer UKRI through to mid-2018, before handing over to a new chair (most likely drawn from the business world) and CEO. His biggest priority over the next twelve months will be recruiting a CEO of sufficient calibre, with the right skillset to manage a £6 billion, nine-headed hydra. The language in the Nurse Review around individual councils as “faculties” within a larger whole has led many to assume that the winning candidate will be drawn from the ranks of Russell Group vice-chancellors. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Dame Nancy Rothwell, and Sir Keith Burnett have all been mentioned as possibilities. There is also a suggestion that Kingman will look overseas, with Sarah Springman, Rector of ETH Zurich, an outside contender.

Others note that Sir Mark Walport’s five-year term as chief scientific adviser comes to an end on 31 March 2018, in perfect time for him to take on one last big job. But memories of his tussles with the research councils in the autumn of 2014 remain fresh, leading senior sources to suggest that a more consensual operator is required. Either way, Walport is a winner from another proposal in the White Paper: the strengthening of the Council for Science and Technology (CST), which he co-chairs. Beefing up the CST is a hardy perennial in UK science policy – this must be the third time it’s been announced in the past ten years – but the intention now is for CST to perform the high-level horizon-scanning and coordination role that Nurse envisaged for his new ministerial committee (an idea which the White Paper kicks into the long grass).

The really interesting question is how UKRI will bed down once its top team is in place, and it becomes fully operational, presumably from April 2018. Can it genuinely deliver a step-change in interdisciplinary, outcome-oriented research, while preserving the distinctive identities, strategies and disciplinary connections of its constituent parts? And will the existing councils be recognisable a decade from now, or reduced to operating divisions within a single corporate structure? Talking to senior figures across the councils and HEFCE over recent days, there is a cautious but growing optimism that these arrangements do create the right kind of enabling framework, and could overcome some of the problems that have hampered earlier efforts at cross-disciplinary working.

As the White Paper reminds us, the UK has an immensely productive and high-performing research system. A huge amount rests on the success of these reforms. UKRI will quickly start to influence the future size, shape and direction of disciplines, departments, and individual research careers. Who is laughing and who ends up crying five or ten years from now remains to be seen….

8 responses to “UKRI if you want to: how to read the new research landscape

  1. A good blog, and I very much hope that this new structure will deliver. The biggest threat is whether UKRI turns out to stifle the current autonomous and powerful Research Council leadership of disciplines, and whether the UKRI Board and Chief Exec can really deliver on what will be a very challenging and complex leadership role.

    Will done BIS on putting the Bill together (I know how fraught these things are!).

    A few random and generally minor thoughts on the research bits of the Bill:

    I could not see any requirement for UKRI to advise the Government on R&I questions on which it asks for advice.

    In Clause 85, why are humanities missing from (1)(c)? Also, “awareness and understanding” sounds a bit like Public Understanding of Science – haven’t we moved on from that?

    In 87(4) the meaning of “have regard to” will need careful explication, so as not to discourage brilliant pure maths (say) with no obvious connection to the 87(4) criteria.

    How does 88(3) allow Innovate UK to work with the Newton Fund?

    I hope that 89(2) does not imply greater tracking of QR funding through universities.

    92 seems legally heavy-handed – cannot all this just be made a condition of grant in the grant letters or similar?

    95(3) – what is a “reasonable balance” legally?!

    100 is nifty – making sure UKRI represents HMG views rather than its own!

    Schedule 9: 2(5) – no mention of public/societal engagement?

    Schedule 9: 10(4) – I doubt whether this gets round the ability of UKRI/Councils to hold informal discussions without BIS present (which may sometimes be a good thing).

  2. They were too polite to put the knife in, but the evidence session of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on shoe-horning Innovate UK into UK Research and Innovation elicited concerns from inquisitors and witnesses, Ruth McKernan, Stian Westlake and Jackie Hunter.

    Can Innovate UK really fit in with Research Councils that have very different “customers” from the businesses that are the focus for Innovate UK? Will the emphasis on Innovation at UKRI bend the research funded in universities.

    Catch it here:

    Some nice background for this thoughtful blog article.

  3. If HEFCE is to become part of UKRI, why are representatives from the devolved administrations – such as SCottish Funding Council – also not around the table. More regional fragmentation of the U.K. Research base.

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