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Nine brains or megabrain: who’s making UKRI?

UKRI is starting to take shape behind the scenes. James Wilsdon has spoken to dozens of key players to lift the curtain on what promises to be a transformation in the UK research and innovation landscape.

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy at University College London and executive director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI)

On the fourth floor of London’s 1 Victoria Street, a science-based start-up is in the throes of being born. Under the watchful eye of Sir Mark Walport, its CEO-designate, and Rebecca Endean, its strategy director, a twenty-strong team of BEIS officials and secondees from existing funding agencies are hard at work translating part three of the freshly-minted Higher Education & Research Act into operational reality. In April 2018, this high-stakes venture opens for business, and by 2020 it is projected to have a turnover of £8 billion a year. In return, it promises nothing less than a transformation in the UK’s research and innovation performance.

Welcome to Shadow UKRI.

Much of the detailed preparation for UKRI’s launch has been taking place below the radar. The research community knows that changes are on the way, but their scale and speed remains unclear. Tomorrow we will learn more, when Sir Mark Walport gives his first public speech under a UKRI banner, in which he promises to spell out his vision for the new body “and how it will push the frontiers of knowledge, deliver economic impact and support our society.”

The UKRI moment

It has become commonplace to describe the current higher education reforms as the most significant for twenty-five years. On the research side, we have to cast back further for a period of equivalent change – to the 1965 Science and Technology Act, and the subsequent reviews of government R&D and basic research by Lord Rothschild and Sir Frederick Dainton, which were published as a matching pair in November 1971.

Sir Paul Nurse revisited this terrain in his 2015 review and called for it to be reshaped around a newly consolidated funding agency: Research UK (which later morphed into UKRI). But while his headline proposal was rapidly endorsed by ministers, the Nurse Review was sufficiently ambiguous on crucial points of governance to provoke intense debate during the passage of the 2016 Bill. Arguments focused initially on whether UKRI was needed at all, then on how its component parts should relate to one another, and what powers and accountabilities should apply at its new strategic layer.

From the autumn of 2016, these concerns began to ease, thanks to greater clarity from BEIS, and to HM Treasury’s unexpected largesse in committing an extra £4.7 billion to R&D by 2021, through the new Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund. A final flurry of amendments to part three of the Bill in February 2017 satisfied remaining critics (myself included) – and the heat over UKRI was reduced to a low simmer – with more energy going into debates about post-Brexit research collaboration than the specifics of how UKRI will work.

But inside government, the pace has been picking up. The Shadow-UKRI team has active streams of work ongoing around organisational design; data and technology infrastructure; knowledge exchange and commercialization; skills and training – and numerous option papers have been drafted for Sir Mark’s consideration. Jo Johnson’s return as minister provides welcome stability at a political level, and will further accelerate the process of implementation.

For Shadow-UKRI, the skunkworks phase is now drawing to a close, and the focus is shifting outwards. On 22 June, it launched an official Twitter account – @UKRI_News – a sign that it intends to start talking to a wider world. It also unveiled a logo (albeit one that appears to have been knocked up by an intern using Microsoft Word. Let’s hope it’s just a placeholder.)

Then there’s tomorrow’s speech. Hosted by four of the national academies, this is a significant staging post on the road to UKRI’s launch. Like Sir Michael Barber’s recent speech on the Office for Students, Sir Mark’s text will be scrutinised for hints of what is to come. And we can expect him to include a few eye-catching announcements – perhaps of the next Global Challenges Research Fund call, or a shortlist of future priorities for the Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund.

In response, the research community also needs to shift gear – from questions of what and why, to the finer detail of precisely how UKRI can achieve its objectives, and interface effectively with the rest of the sector.

Over recent months, as preparations for UKRI have been taking shape, I’ve spoken to dozens of key players across the system – research council heads, senior staff, council members, VCs, PVCs and members of the UKRI transition team – to build up a better picture of how it will work. So as we wait for Sir Mark’s vision, how much is already clear? What remains uncertain? And what should we look out for in tomorrow’s speech?

The top team

The task of assembling UKRI from its nine constituent bodies is a complex jigsaw of legal, financial, HR, logistical and administrative challenges – made more difficult at various points by political uncertainties over the HER Bill, and by the need to keep the normal machinery of research funding and innovation support running smoothly throughout. So it’s a credit to the skills of the Shadow-UKRI team that everything remains on track for the launch in nine months time.

As the weeks go by, more pieces slot into place. Inevitably, a great deal of effort has gone into securing a high-calibre board and executive team, and we now know who will occupy several key roles.

At board level, Sir John Kingman (former Second Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, and now Group Chairman of Legal and General) was appointed Chair in May 2016 “on an interim basis” to see through the transition. The assumption is that he will hand over to a new Chair before the end of 2018, though some kind of extension to his tenure can’t be ruled out.

Sir John notionally devotes one day a week to his UKRI role, but by all accounts, it’s often more. As he explained to the Commons Science & Technology Committee back in October, his priority is “to make sure that by April 2018 we have an organisation that is credible and able to do its job”. Sir John’s hand was visible in November’s surprise £4.7 billion boost to UKRI’s budget, and more recently, he has been heavily involved in recruiting the rest of the board. Hundreds of applications were received for the nine to twelve available places on the Board, and interviews took place in the second half of May. Subject to ministerial approval, an announcement must now be imminent – possibly alongside tomorrow’s speech. Whoever is chosen, the sector and disciplinary balance, diversity, and perceived independence of the final line-up will be closely scrutinised.

On the senior management side, Sir Mark Walport was confirmed in February as CEO-Designate, to the surprise of some. Over a decade at the head of the Wellcome Trust, and four years as Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Sir Mark has become something of a Marmite figure within the science community: admired, respected, feared and loathed in even measure. It’s well known that he doesn’t suffer fools, or even the ostensibly intelligent, with particular gladness. One of Whitehall’s departmental chief scientists (who meet regularly as a network under Sir Mark) admits to me: “I’m not sure he brings the best out of the CSAs, as so many of us feel bullied or belittled by him at times.” This piece by Dame Athene Donald takes a diplomatically coded tiptoe through such concerns, which now swirl, like port, at many a high table.

But at the end of the day, UKRI needs a CEO who is effective, rather than loveable – particularly in its startup phase. Even his critics concede that Sir Mark is highly strategic and decisive, with the experience and networks to get things done. “Mark is simply brilliant at managing upwards”, one senior policymaker says (leaving the corollary unspoken). He will also be well rewarded for his talents, with a salary of £199,000 (plus a “performance element” as he informed the Commons S&T Committee in March).

Currently, Sir Mark is engaged in a “tapered transition” between jobs, spending roughly half the week on UKRI, while Chris Whitty (CSA at Department of Health) covers some of his responsibilities in the Government Office for Science. This arrangement will continue until the autumn, and ideally until Sir Mark’s successor as GCSA is in post. I’m told that the name of a preferred candidate for GCSA has been sent to No.10 for approval, but may not be able to start immediately, so the job-share may run for a while yet.

As soon as he was appointed, Sir Mark began to populate the senior team who will work alongside him at UKRI’s strategic core. Top of his list was Rebecca Endean, who was confirmed in March as UKRI’s director of strategy, having led the transition team. Whip-smart, tough and respected across Whitehall, Endean enjoys a good rapport with Sir Mark and will be an influential force in UKRI. Next up was Anne Dixon, currently COO at Innovate UK, who has been confirmed as UKRI’s programme director. A chief finance officer will be announced any day. Other members of the Shadow-UKRI team, including Alex Marsh and Bryony Butland, are also expected to move into permanent roles. And while this makes complete sense in terms of continuity and capability, it has ruffled the feathers of some senior research council staff, who also aspire to move to the nerve centre of the new operation.

Musical chairs

It’s all change too, across the leadership of UKRI’s nine constituent bodies. One of these – Research England – is being carved from scratch out of the dying husk of HEFCE, and the late-April announcement that David Sweeney, HEFCE’s director of research, education and knowledge exchange, will be its first executive chair, has been welcomed across the sector. Sweeney’s richly-sedimented experience will ensure the smooth running of REF2021 and bring a whole-institution perspective to the heart of UKRI. He will also act as a champion of “balance” across the funding system – a principle enshrined in the HER Act, but open to a range of interpretations.

Across the other bodies, there will also be an unprecedented level of senior management churn over the next six to twelve months. On 31 March, the roles of chief executive and chair of the research councils and Innovate UK dissolve, and the following day, a new cadre of executive chairs is created, who will report to Sir Mark and operate collectively as UKRI’s Executive Committee. Before then, as this table shows, several new faces are needed:

UKRI bodyCurrent CEOStatus and future plans
AHRCAndrew ThompsonAfter a period as interim, confirmed in March 17 as chief executive, transitioning to Executive Chair in April 18. Term runs until Sept 2020.
BBSRCMelanie WelhamInterim chief executive to 31 March 18. Recruitment for an Executive Chair from 1 April will start soon.
EPSRCPhilip NelsonExpected to see through the transition, and stay until late 2018, before handing over to a successor.
ESRCJane ElliottResigned in March 17, a year before the end of her term. Recruitment for a successor is now underway. Deputy also needed, as Phil Sooben resigned on the same day to lead the Political Studies Association.
MRCSir John SavillReappointed term runs through the transition until September 18. Recruitment for a new Executive Chair expected soon.
NERCDuncan WinghamTerm runs until December 2017. Recruitment for a new Executive Chair expected soon.
STFCBrian BowsherAppointed chief executive in Nov 16, so likely to transition to Executive Chair for a full term.
Innovate UKRuth McKernanWill remain in post and transition to Executive Chair. Longer term plans unknown.
Research England*N/ADavid Sweeney is now Executive Chair-Designate. He has indicated previously that he intends to retire in 2020.

*newly created

This is a significant HR task, particularly as these roles haven’t yet found their market weight. As one PVC put it to me: “Is it a step up to chair one of the UKRI councils or a step off the ladder towards becoming a VC?” The first test of this will be the ESRC, where huge effort has gone into ensuring a strong field, after an initially tepid response.

In parallel, UKRI needs to recruit or reappoint members of each council, whose roles won’t automatically roll across into the new structure. For Research England, this means finding a wholly new council, for which an advert was issued last week. The other councils will also follow an open process, but some existing members are being quietly encouraged to reapply.

So while the legislation formally safeguards the autonomy of individual councils within UKRI, such a changing of the guard will give Sir Mark huge leeway to shape management and governance in line with his vision and strategy.

In the management layers below, changes are also expected once UKRI is up and running. Both Sir Mark and Sir John are said to admire the “rotator model”, long used by the US National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to bring senior academics into research management on secondments of two to four years, to set up or lead particular programmes. While this approach is occasionally used in the UK, a push in this direction would be a significant and potentially controversial change – not least because of the discretion that NSF/NIH rotators exercise over specific funding decisions. The rotator model is not without its critics, who see it as expensive, and at times problematic for the management and morale of permanent staff.

There are also practical issues to resolve. If you’re a professor in Illinois or South Dakota, the opportunity to spend a few years in Washington DC at the NSF could be rather attractive. Swindon doesn’t have the same allure. And this links to a wider question: how much of UKRI will be headquartered in London, and how much in Swindon (or in HEFCE’s old offices in Bristol)?

Sir Mark has made it clear that he wants a London base, which seems sensible, given the need for UKRI to engage with the rest of government, and the value of a London “front door” for business and overseas delegations – the latter especially crucial given the need to expand our collaborative options after Brexit. Both the MRC and HEFCE have small offices in London, but neither of these is likely to suffice, and the MRC’s lease expires in 2019. So the search is underway for a solution. (Perhaps a wing of the Royal Institution could be repurposed if it remains in a financially fragile state?).

Assuming an office is found, that still leaves the managerially-delicate task of deciding who gets to work there. It was interesting to note that the recent advert for an Executive Chair of ESRC indicated that the role would be London based. As one senior figure told me: “I’m worried we’ll end up with a split between the ‘doers’ in Swindon and the ‘deciders’ in London.”

The brains of the beast?

Beneath the froth of job titles and desk space, lies a more fundamental question: how far and fast should the strategic centre of UKRI grow? Both Sir Mark and Sir John have been at pains to stress that it should be small and strategic. Speaking to Nature, Sir Mark said he had never been a proponent of “something monolithic” and wanted “nine, very strong individual component parts, where, working together, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.” Similarly, Sir John talks of “nine brains in one body”, and insists that there is “absolutely no value in building a galumphing new bureaucracy: UKRI’s strategic function needs to be lean, focused, respected and (of course) extremely high quality.”

Early on in the UKRI planning process, BEIS asked consultants Deloitte to develop design options. They proposed several models, including “centres of excellence”, whereby each body leads on one cross-cutting issue for the whole of UKRI. But while it’s feasible to see how STFC could lead on facilities and infrastructure across the system, or Research England could lead on HEI capabilities and HEIF-type funding, it’s not easy to attach all nine bodies to a core competence in this way. Questioned by the Commons S&T committee in March, Sir Mark seemed lukewarm about Deloitte’s proposals, saying “I was not in any way involved…and I have seen the report only relatively recently.”

An alternative would be to build up the strategic capacity at the centre –creating, to adapt Sir John’s metaphor, a “megabrain” for research and innovation strategy. This option seems unlikely to be followed in year one, but must remain open, if a more distributed, networked approach fails to deliver the step-change in performance that UKRI’s creation demands.

Worldwide, the science of science and innovation policy, sometimes known as “meta-research”, is advancing rapidly. There is now huge potential to combine machine learning, advanced data, analytics and metrics with a mix of qualitative methods, expert judgement and horizon-scanning, to provide UKRI with rich, real-time intelligence on how the research and innovation system is performing; areas of research strength and weakness; disciplinary, institutional and geographic balance; emerging industrial and business priorities; and changing dynamics of concentration and diversity.

In a thoughtful post last year, Stian Westlake and colleagues at Nesta considered the challenge of creating a “strategic brain” and concluded that “the one thing that holds back the government’s ability to get good data on the innovation system is the fact that this analytic capability is widely dispersed: excellent analytic teams at HEFCE and the IPO; capability in various parts of BIS; the Smart Specialisation Hub; expertise in the Government Office for Science.” To this one could add a long list of data sources on the research side, gathered in a fragmented way by HEIs and research funders, through the REF, by the large bibliometric databases like Scopus, or via altmetric platforms and peer-networks like ResearchGate.

Work is underway to capitalise on these opportunities through UKRI. Jisc is working on a next-generation research information infrastructure. The Forum for Responsible Research Metrics is looking at smarter uses of data in the next REF and beyond. And there are pockets of excellent analytical capacity in several of UKRI’s component parts.

The need for collective intelligence

But how it will come together is not yet clear. Now that the sensitivities of the HER Bill are behind us, I hope Sir Mark and colleagues will be more bullish about the opportunities of a more capable strategic brain. Of course, this needs to work inclusively across all UKRI’s bodies – tapping into what Tom Saunders and Geoff Mulgan describe in another Nesta paper as “collective intelligence”.

But there is no point undergoing the pain and effort of such a massive reorganisation if we don’t come out the other side of it stronger. Given UKRI’s unprecedented powers to determine priorities and allocate funding, the alternative to a bigger strategic brain, governing through collective intelligence, is opaque decision-making by small, unaccountable groups. In the past six months, there have been unwelcome hints of the latter in the way certain decisions have been taken – particularly around the Industrial Strategy Challenges Fund.

So in his speech tomorrow, I want Sir Mark to tell us more about how he intends to create an open, diverse and evidence-informed organisation. Against the backdrop of Brexit, it would be good to hear him speak up for international collaboration and participation in EU networks, as crucial to that diversity. Above all, I hope he spells out how UKRI can improve our research and innovation culture, in terms that resonate at every level of the community – not only in the corridors of power.

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