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Debating the future of research

The REF submission deadline has finally arrived. But it’s only the beginning for researchers, departments and universities that have gambled big and need a good result. The results will make or break many universities’ ambitions and long-term strategic plans. The REF’s importance to the sector, or the impact on it cannot be overstated. But it's not just the REF looming large on policymaker's minds. With severe pressure on the whole of the BIS budget and many outstanding issues to resolve, will the next Parliament afford the opportunity for a far-reaching debate to help shape the next long term settlement for research and science in the UK?
This article is more than 10 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The REF submission deadline has finally arrived. But it’s only the beginning for researchers, departments and universities that have gambled big and need a good result. The results will make or break many universities’ ambitions and long-term strategic plans. The REF’s importance to the sector, or the impact on it cannot be overstated.

But it’s not just the 2014 REF looming large in policymakers minds. A question mark now hangs over the entire research budget. BIS’s budget will remain under serious pressure for a number of years to come. Further cuts can now be expected to plug holes (£100m from research in April to pay for ballooning cost of loans pushed by for-profits has been mooted) and in the longer-term, with so much now taken off balance sheet in the BIS budget, there may soon be no sacred cows left to dissect in the name of science.

With the next REF to follow the general election after next in 2020, the life of one Parliament neatly straddles these two major exercises.

Meanwhile there has been a degree of political convergence around industrial policy; Michael Heseltine, Andrew Witty, Chuka Umunna, David Willetts; there are differences of course, but the clear blue water is drying up.

An opportunity is emerging for wider public debate about research funding in the UK, and the coming political timetable might make the opportunity seem appealing to politicians on the other side of the election.

HEFCE will of course evaluate the 2014 REF, we have triennial reviews and the odd Witty or Heseltine, but none of these provide spaces for public debate or input and they each look only at a part of the picture making them feel incomplete, although quite often useful on their own terms. And they rarely improve the public’s understanding of how and why we spend so much of their money on all this.

The IPPR/HE Commission report Critical Path suggested redeploying the Patent Box and the R&D tax credit in to German-style applied innovation centres. Given that there are virtually no other pots of money in BIS that can be feasibly touched, it was a pragmatic recommendation. There might be appetite for a similar, but even grander moves involving other parts of the research budget.

For instance, the idea of targeting quality-related funding on a regional basis as part of the industrial strategy is one that gains some traction when explained to politicians keen on ‘rebalancing’ the economy. Of course any such move would be a very dramatic change. But ideas like that float around Westminster, waiting for the right politician to come along at the right time.

Because research policy has not been radical in recent years, do not assume it will not be in the near future. The economic challenges that the UK faces are virtually unprecedented, and the political landscape is in a period of real flux, making the future difficult to predict.

Claus Moser, one of the original authors of the Robbins report said at an LSE event marking the report’s 50th anniversary this year that his greatest regret about Robbins is that they did not give research enough attention. Policymakers at the time failed to anticipate how the US and others would charge ahead so fast and leave the UK looking antiquated and underfunded for the decades to come.

Browne didn’t say much about research either and there has been little political appetite to rock the boat – the Government’s 2011 Innovation & Research Strategy was about as dry and consensual as Whitehall can get and everything else recently has either been reheating announcements or moving pots around to compensate for the earlier devastating cuts in capital spending.

Although evoking great passion in much of academia, research funding rarely comes up on the doorstep outside some of the leafier wards in Cambridge. HEFCE’s Director of Research, David Sweeney is often rolled out to absorb some of the vocal criticisms of the REF – although a role he appears to enjoy, it’s a debate that generally only happens amongst self-selecting conference attendees or on the letters page of Times Higher Education. And in a wider sense, debates about research have remained deliberately technocratic because of an understandable desire for politics not to influence the disbursal of research funding.

But whilst the sector is absorbing the impact of the 2014 REF (which could be dramatic for both the biggest winners and losers) and with other issues still outstanding such as open access, a more public debate and genuine exchange of ideas could give the next Government a mandate for a refreshed research agenda. At the very least, it can show that it has listened and if everything substantially stays the same on a macro level, or if only minor improvements are made, the debate itself could provide the research community with an important moment that could help secure its future.

The dual support system exists for a good reason, and the REF has critics but it is at the very least an astonishing bureaucratic achievement. But the public at large has little stake in what has grown up to be a sizeable chunk of our economy. And if the science and research communities want to increase the proportion of GDP spent on research – as they campaign for governments to do – then people need to understand better what is done with the existing envelope – and why it matters to them. Otherwise no government of any stripe, in boom or bust, will be likely to increase spending.

Bringing all the above issues out for an airing in the first part of the next Parliament might help. And with events such as the opening of the Crick Institute around the same time, both the Government and research community need to harness these occasions to loudly demonstrate the value of research.

So it may well benefit higher education and the wider research and science community to lobby political parties now to promise a broad and high profile review of UK research beginning in early 2015.

A Robbins, Dearing or Browne moment, but just for research. It should ask: ‘How was the REF for you?’ It should look at open access, improving applied research, bureaucratic burdens, the impact of impact, industrial policy, international competition, the balance of research and teaching and everything else in between.  It should have strong and visible leadership and include a plurality of voices at every level.

A review of this kind should provide a new space for debate and discussion about both the issues that simmer beneath the surface, as well as the many big questions that research interacts with. Sure, it might be a headache for some and opening up debate always carries risks. But just ‘hoping for the best’ is rarely a good strategy, particularly in times of such dramatic political and economic upheaval.

A new review should also be a key step on the journey to the next long-term settlement for science and research on which we need to bring along as many people as possible to secure a broad mandate. And given the existing climate, there is now a good chance of creating consensus across political parties; a vital element needed to safeguard the future.

The next settlement reached for research and science will contribute to the shape of our future success as a nation – something we all have a stake in. And that’s where we begin.

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