James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

Reviewing research bureaucracy is a balancing act. And the whole research community is watching.

Tip too far into getting rid of processes, paperwork and oversight you risk making the way funding is allocated less fair, robust and defensible. Tip too far toward tinkering, modifying, and otherwise ironing out some creases, and you risk reducing admin by adding more of it.

Defining bureaucracy

The Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy led by Birmingham vice chancellor Adam Tickell reported back in July 2022. In even trying to describe what university bureaucracy is, he undertook the enormous task of bringing into focus the fuzzy boundaries of administration, funding, and partnership working.

Tickell recognised that funding is not just the relationship between funders and universities. It is the relationship between researchers and universities, universities and other universities, collections of universities with civic and governmental partners, UK researchers with international researchers, and innumerable other relationships that are impossible to keep track of.

The UK research landscape is more like the internet with a vast network of interdependent actors, than it is a car with an engine and a driver.

The only way to navigate any of this is through people – who are filling in forms, assessing bids, running peer review panels, and distributing funding. Ultimately, the aim of any research bureaucracy simplification exercise is to get the best from people’s specialism, be that research or administration with the least pain possible, through good platforms and processes.

Cutting red tape needs a whole system approach. This was the central thesis of Tickell’s review.

As we wrote at the time on his work:

He is blunt, and fair, in his assessment that much of the administrative drag is of universities own making. In perhaps the most far-reaching part of the report he imagines a world where universities can delegate more effectively, strip back internal layers of approval, and where UUK could bring the sector together to better respond to risk and reward in research funding.

Already in progress

The government response covers a lot of ground in 52 pages. It is a mixture of things for UKRI to do – like adapting research grant management depending on the nature of the grant, the removal of some additional bits of form filling like shifting to narrative CVs, a new team to “to identify areas of creeping, unnecessary bureaucracy across the wider public research system”, ongoing work like the Simpler Better Funding Programme, a potential phasing out of the use of Researchfish from 2025, the announcement of the launch of a metascience unit (the unit interested in the science of science), and various measures to align processes between funders.

Interestingly, UKRI will gain “a new mandate to have due regard for reducing bureaucracy in all new initiatives and programmes it funds.” UKRI has welcomed the Tickell review already, and it will be interesting to see what material difference this new mandate makes.

Inevitably, a government response which has been eighteen months in the making can read like it is simply pointing at things which are happening already rather than moving the debate forward. Simultaneously, in a review of how processes gum up systems it would be more than a little ironic to introduce lots of new work for the sake of it – we might soon enough need a review of research policy bureaucracy.

But overall the response takes into account many parts of the research system and shaves off some irregularities, form filling and mess, to make things a bit easier if not radically different.

Administration saves the nation

However, there are some things which are a little more exciting.

There is a meaty response to concerns about the interoperability of data which has Jisc’s fingers all over it (they are mentioned no fewer than 37 times in the report). In an ever more technically complex set of measures they are effectively committed to improving network capacity, licensing approaches, and data sharing between funders. In turn Jisc (wearing its HESA hat) should deliver “more sustainable, persistent and interoperable open data about research.” It shouldn’t be underestimated how much work a single data-driven approach to understanding what is happening, with a single set of data and clear requirements, underpinned by robust data sharing, could save. This is the hard work of actually reducing bureaucracy.

The issue of organisational bureaucracy is harder to tackle as universities are autonomous and free to have as much or as little bureaucracy they want – as long as they are compliant with funder requirements. It is suggested that there could be a role for sector bodies in working with universities to help share ideas on cutting down bureaucracy (hands up if you remember the Efficiency Exchange). There is a raft of ongoing UUK activity on working with Jisc to align digital processes. And there are encouraging noises about the Russell Group working with UKRI to encourage universities to set up “trusted funder policies”. The University of Birmingham has such a policy – it allows for the more rapid recruitment of staff before the official project start date, where a project has been funded by a trusted funder.

There will be some new levers to actually make this work happen – an example of the kind of good bureaucracy which makes things happen. There will be a network to focus on harmonsing “systems and processes between funders” – which will likewise work with government to look at where unneeded bureaucracy is emerging, and then seek to stamp it out.

One notable aside in the review is the highlighting of the successive cost increases that the Research Excellence Framework has accrued. We hear that the government is “committed to reversing the trends of increasing costs” and expects the next REF to be “significantly and measurably less bureaucratic” than its predecessor. How this will play out remains to be seen.

EDI controversy

The ongoing tension between improving equality of outcomes and reducing bureaucracy, of course, persists. The government has taken a legalistic approach to this question, which rubs up against many of the wider equality commitments previously supported and endorsed by government in various funding and strategic plans. If “the government does not require or advise funders to do any activities, or require such activities from others, beyond what is necessary to comply with their legal duties under the Act. This includes the excessive use of Equality Impact Assessments. Burdensome approaches should be avoided.” then how do we react when government decisions bring about more bureaucracy?

But it had been hinted for a while that the government would use its response to Tickell to address the problems it sees with EDI work, and in this context Tickell’s headline recommendation (number 12) that funders “should ensure that application processes support their commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion” can be read as being broadly welcomed. However forceful the language beneath may be, it suggests that beyond Michelle Donelan’s ongoing (separate) review of sex and gender data (we still await terms of reference, five months after the announcement at party conference) there is unlikely to be broader policy movement here.

The problem with responses that emerge 18 months after the review is that they reflect a different world to the one when the report was written. With a topic as complex as research bureaucracy the impacts of the review will not be felt for years to come, and will be felt unevenly across the research landscape.

If there is progress in harmonising approaches across funders, building more consistent digital platforms, and planing the rough edges of form filling, burdensome funding requirements, and support for institutions to improve their own practice, it will make a difference without totally upending the research bureaucracy landscape.

One response to “Movement on research bureaucracy as the Tickell review finally gets a response

  1. We do need to change how research is funded.

    How about, instead of the teams having to rewrite and tweak proposals for different funders, researchers submit their proposals once to a service to which different funders have access, and the funders pick and choose which research they want to fund so that the researcher doesn’t have one shot at it, all funders get to see what the researchers want to research, and the research could be done in a more timely way.

    Funders could have the opportunity to make contact with the research team for clarifying points before agreeing to fund, but this takes the burden away from the academics writing the proposals and onto the funders to find the research they want doing in their names.

Leave a Reply