David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

What feels like an age ago (but was actually only in 2021) I asked a pretty fundamental question – why is it that universities are often seen as the primary source of research acumen in the UK?

It’s not unreasonable to ask.

There is, of course, a great deal of research that takes place elsewhere – in industry, in other parts of the public sector (via Public Sector Research Establishments, or PSREs), in charities, and in other organisations supported directly by research funding councils.

We don’t hear so much about this research – and in terms of direct government support it is dwarfed by both funding and infrastructure funding flowing to the university sector.

Now, it seems, this perennial cinderella of the research world is seeing a new moment in the light – with uncertain implications for universities.

A bit of history

The answer to my original question about research in universities was long, complex, and took in a 1915 white paper called Scheme for the Organisation and Development of Scientific and Industrial Research that launched UKRI’s first ancestor: the Committee for Science and Industrial Research (later, thanks to one RB Haldane, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, or DSIR).

Fundamentally, the UK at the time had ambitions to become a science superpower – though at the moment when science was most needed, problems with existing arrangements became very apparent.

It appears incontrovertible that if we are to advance or even maintain our industrial position we must as a nation aim at such a development of scientific and industrial research as will place us in a position to expand and strengthen our industries and to compete successfully with the most highly organised of our rivals

Universities – as a skills infrastructure (alongside more vocational education, and technology-focused apprenticeships), and as a source of “new knowledge of a fundamental nature” – were very much seen as a part of the solution. The 1918 establishment of DSIR (and the 1920 formalisation of the Medical Research Council) was the beginnings of systematic funding for research projects being allocated to universities – rather than, as previously, being distributed primarily by departments on an ad hoc basis.

The old departmental spending had often been channelled outside of the university sector – and the genesis of many of our current PSREs stems from this period. It had drawbacks – with each department (and indeed, each local government body) having an independent research policy it was difficult to realise economies of scale – duplication abounded, sustainability was complex, and the First World War demonstrated that Britain was beginning to fall behind.

The world of the PSRE

The then-new DSIR made a very familiar split between “blue skies” research (then described as pure science) from more applied and focused research (“fundamental research”, confusingly enough). It was felt that the former was the domain of the university – but what happened to the latter?

The UK boasts a number of public sector research establishments, where this more practical end of research has historically been supported. Alongside institutes funded directly by research councils, and a range of independent research organisations (IROs) that include museums, charities, and industrial collaborations, these represent the other arm of state support for research.

In 2020, at the point of a Royal Society report, these numbered 237.

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PSREs and similar research council hosted and independent research organisations currently employ some 17,000 scientists, offer graduate and degree apprenticeship schemes, run key elements of the national research infrastructure, and support key international collaborations.

A very special day

The recent crop of research policy publications include insights from a 2022 survey of a subset of these organisations – with the findings less interesting than the fact that the government needed to commission such a survey to find out what these establishments are actually doing (it turns out, lots of things).

The vibe is very much “child discovering a forgotten toy at the back of the cupboard”. The government’s response to the Nurse review will grant us the excitement of an annual PSREs day to “raise awareness” – of more lasting interest is a targeted (and initially small) funding round to offer core small- and medium- scale research infrastructure at these research and innovation organisations, and an investigation of the potential for sustainable funding for such organisations.

It’s been a while since the government has gotten the best out of these other research establishments – the lack of continuity and need for precise direction has meant that they are not a means of realising the wider research benefits that arguably do most to drive wider innovation.

The response flags DSIT as a new home (a 21st century DSIR, if you will) for these perennial waifs and strays of research capacity – giving us the opportunity to indulge in some long-term planning – the aforementioned sustainable funding, and a renewed emphasis on collaboration and grant-winning ability (noting the continuing failure of UKRI and others to cover the full economic costs (FEC) of research. The hint is providing a source of “co-funding”, which could be read as analogous to the QR funding that offers a similar cushion for universities.

A shifting landscape

In essence, what we may be looking at is a rebalancing of the research ecosystem – with, at the very least, the long neglected PSREs and other RIOs benefiting from a level playing field. Bring ARIA and related ideas into the mix, and it is not too difficult to imagine a more general freezing out of university research.

With public sector finances being what they are (and facing further cuts to pay for the recent round of tax cuts) it is unlikely that the government will be able to tap into a seam of new money to enhance the work of PSREs and similar bodies. The majority of research funding flows to universities, and there is a sense in which we can see PSREs as a cheaper and more controllable alternative to the status quo.

Recent orthodoxy has brought the expectation that, whereas the sector can expect to get it in the neck from ministers over the (overwhelmingly excellent, and immensely valuable) teaching it offers, the higher education sector is the principal beneficiary of research (*and more loosely, innovation funding). Though universities don’t even approach breaking even on any government funded (teaching or research) activity, there’s been a sense that the rising volume of research funding offers – along with international recruitment – a little bit of a lifeline.

The dual funding model – project funding, plus the general support via QR – allows universities the flexibility to bid for government funding without having to expect that the full cost of research would be covered. Nurse, and the government response, notes that PSREs and others do not have that flexibility – the government is making noises about addressing that. University research is expensive – costs at other organisations may be lower.

Universities – to ministers – are robustly independent to an often wilful degree. DSIT Secretary of State Michelle Donelan’s recent attacks on sector “wokeism” (the bizarre letter about the Research England EDI Advisory Board, the investigation into sex and gender research) represents, for the first time in an age, a general questioning of sector research practices.

Could the new found excitement about PSREs and similar bodies be another arm of a wider ministerial presumption against the sector? It’s a stretch to be fair, but in the final months of this government anything is possible. Let’s hope cool heads prevail.

One response to “Is public sector research on the rise?

  1. The author has just discovered government labs but that does mean no one else heard about them before. The analysis is way off beam.

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