Do we really need another research funding body?

The disagreement over who funds research with public money, and on what grounds, is a long one. Briefings released alongside the 2019 Queen’s Speech suggests the matter is far from settled.

A new funding agency, seemingly modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, will “fund emerging fields of research and technology” and “reduce bureaucracy in research funding” – more time in the lab, less time filling out forms. This will come alongside a significant boost to research and development funding expected in the Budget on 4 November.

But why would we need a new government funding agency? And why, if we did, should it sit outside UKRI?

Why more money and less forms might be a bad thing

Have you ever wondered why we have research funding councils? After all – money for research comes from the taxpayer, and is allocated at a top level by the Treasury. Ministers and departmental civil servants can place often quite detailed stipulations on what the money can be used for, and then it passes on to another agency before ending up in your institutional bank account.

A few alert readers will be thinking “Haldane” at this point, and yes – the Haldane principle, is set out in the Higher Education and Research Act.

The ‘Haldane principle’ is the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (such as a peer review process)” (HERA s103(3))

What this means (and has meant since Haldane’s 1918 report into the machinery of government) is that “general research” has been under the control of independent research councils, with academic judgement and peer review tempering any political pressures on what research is funded and what is not. It’s a unique arrangement and arguably has contributed to both the character and power of research in the UK.

Haldane does not remove the ability of departments to commission specific research projects using their own funds (as for instance, DfE has commissioned the Institute for Fiscal Studies to look at salary impacts of degree course choices using LEO data). Indeed, the split between departmental and research council spending has been contentious over the years – the implementation of Rothschild Report recommendations in 1974 saw a substantial proportion of research council budgets transferred to government departments which was reversed by the Thatcher administration in the mid-eighties.

The new agency would likely sit closer to the departmental side of this split (and departmental research budgets have remained comparatively low since the 1980s), but it could be a creature of central government rather than any one department. It would be unlikely to replace UKRI or the research council system, but would offer another route to seeing government priorities translated into research.

Those who have spent the last few years designing and implementing UKRI, which was meant to be one overarching strategic body for all research and innovation activity funded by government, are likely to be nervous about the proposal. James Wilsdon captured the mood of many on Twitter in his response to the proposal:

I hope UK research community won’t allow its enthusiasm for extra investment buy its silence in asking tough questions about the evidence, justification & accountability of any ‘new approach’. What the UK system needs is a period of stable growth – not dilettante tinkering.

The UK’s own DARPA

If you read a lot about innovation, you’ll see the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cited many times, particularly in the context of DARPA’s golden age in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was focused on high-risk and high-gain basic research – developing ideas and technology that underpin the global positioning system (GPS) and the underlying packet-switching technology that became the internet.

By 1973 DARPA was cut back into a purely military-focused research institute, primarily investigating applied defence and security technology. The UK has a similar defence-focused agency, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), which “ensures that innovative science and technology contribute to the defence and security of the UK”. DSTL employs around 3,700 people and has a budget of £500m, which compares to DARPA directly employing around 200 people with a budget of $3.5bn.

There is clearly a place for commissioning applied research using existing discoveries to benefit government priorities. But the language of “emerging fields” suggests that we are investing far earlier in the innovation pipeline, and far from defence priorities.

And this is also not the language of Innovate UK, which exists to channel public funds into supporting business activities and promote innovation in business. Again, this is nearer the other end of the funnel, and is primarily focused on applied research. Notably Innovate UK is not formally required to adhere to Haldane principles, though it could be argued that the use of “peers” from the world of business comes close when judging business focused proposals.

The Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings has long been known as an advocate for golden age DARPA-like research support – hymning the idea of funding “people not projects” and the “out of control” aspects of giving a room full of smart people resources and seeing what happens.

No more government subsidies for active basses

If you are a research-active academic you may at this stage be wondering where you sign up for this, and on the surface, it appears to be an attractive idea. But it would be unlikely to be the same as simply being properly funded to continue your research without having to apply for grants.

But grants are both a means of making the best use of limited resources, and a way to ensure academic oversight and peer review of research. As well as deciding who gets the money and who does not, peer review provides both a methodological and ethical oversight. The ends may not justify the means, after all.

But researchers directly funded by the government – the “people not projects” idea – would not have the benefit of peer oversight and support. They may be working on projects where data or tools are classified. They may be researching topics that could lead to abhorrent and divisive policy goals.

And, of course, we already have a process to support interest-led basic research – it’s QR, the non-project based leg of the dual support system. Academics are funded, albeit semi-selectively based on historic departmental and institutional research performance, to conduct research without the need for a grant application. Famously graphene, possibly the most important British discovery in recent years, came from research not linked to an external grant.

It may be unfashionable in this post-expert era, but is there something to be said for the idea of academic independence and integrity? An increase in QR would support researchers in just the kind of basic research that leads to breakthroughs – but on academic terms rather than political ones.

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