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

On Monday night, a crowd of around 300 leading lights from the worlds of science, universities and business thronged the entrance hall of the British Library in London for the official launch of UK Research and Innovation. The £6 billion-a-year funding agency formally went live at the start of April, but this was the first public airing of its plans.

After a warm-up by the head of the British Library, the evening consisted of quickfire talks by Sir John Kingman (chair of UKRI), Sir Mark Walport (chief executive), Greg Clark and Sam Gyimah (BEIS ministerial leads), and finally Jennifer Rubin (executive chair of ESRC, and UKRI lead for equality and diversity). Each of them emphasized the significance of the UKRI moment; a “once-in-a-generation opportunity”, as Sam Gyimah put it.

The other star of the show was a 55-page strategic prospectus, released alongside the event. The product of several months of work by the shadow UKRI team, masterminded by its strategy director Rebecca Endean, this provides the most textured guide yet to UKRI’s priorities for its first few years.

A four–hour round-trip from Sheffield to attend Monday’s launch party gave me ample opportunity to study this prospectus in detail. How much does it tell us that’s new? What should we look out for as UKRI gears up over the next twelve months? And which choices and trade-offs remain implicit or unspoken?

Here are my seven take-home points from the UKRI prospectus:

1) It’s a step towards a strategy, not the strategy itself 

In his opening remarks, Sir John Kingman declared that: “Tonight marks the end of the beginning”. The prospectus is just that: a welcome outline of UKRI’s vision and aims, and a broad sense of how it may get there. But unsurprisingly, for a body that has formally existed for just six weeks, a full strategic plan, with answers to the thornier questions that UKRI needs to address, are yet to come.

As the introduction to the document explains: “This Strategic Prospectus represents the beginning of the process to develop a detailed Research and Innovation Strategy. Over the coming months, we will be conducting research and consultation to develop the approach of UKRI, working with others, to answer a series of big questions.” In addition to – or as elements of – this detailed overarching strategy, the prospectus flags several pieces of work that will surface in the next twelve months:

  • We will develop a longer-term Research and Innovation Talent Strategy in 2018 (p.15);
  • In its first year, UKRI will engage with its stakeholders to develop a strategy and action plan for equality, diversity and inclusion (p.16);
  • We will scope a new UKRI Ethics Policy and Framework (p.17);
  • We will review our open access policies to assess their effectiveness and make recommendations in 2019 (p.19);
  • We will develop effective data and metrics to understand the research and innovation landscape in different sectors, technology domains and places (p.28); and
  • We will review our public engagement programmes and develop a new public engagement vision and strategy by March 2019 (p.39).

Later, the prospectus underlines again that: “…the real work starts now. A programme of engagement and research will allow us to build on this prospectus..”  This is encouraging, but begs a number of questions. What types of engagement, on which questions? Who will be involved? How will UKRI weight the inputs it receives from different stakeholders? One thing is clear: UKRI is going be extremely busy, and the small, lean and focused team that we were promised at its core is unlikely to stay small for much longer. With 7,000 staff on the payroll across UKRI’s nine bodies, there is no shortage of talent to draw from, but uncertainties persist about how large the centre should grow, relative to its constituent parts.

2) UKRI’s destiny is inextricably bound to the 2.4% GDP R&D target

Repeatedly, the prospectus ties UKRI’s vision to the government’s target of boosting the R&D intensity of the economy to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and in the future to 3%. In many respects, this is smart politics. Converting a lofty-but-vague GDP target in the Conservatives’ election manifesto to a concrete, year-on-year schedule of budget increases would be a significant triumph for those in government and on the UKRI board who see R&D as crucial to the UK’s post-Brexit prosperity. Last night, Sam Gyimah rehearsed the line that he and Greg Clark are clearly honing for the 2019 spending review: “We commit: 2% of GDP on defence to guarantee our national security; 0.7% of GDP to aid to honour our global responsibilities; 2.4% of GDP to R&D to underwrite our economic future.”

But this path is not without risks. For a start, while there are uncertainties about rates of GDP growth post-Brexit, 2.4% of GDP is a stretch target under any scenario. Assuming a modest rate of growth, my University of Sheffield colleague Richard Jones has shown that this would mean R&D spend rising by £22 billion (41%) between 2015 and 2027, from £32 billion to £54 billion. This compares to an increase of £6.6 billion (26%) in the period from 2004 to 2015. Public investment accounts for around one-third of total R&D, and the lion’s share of any growth would need to come from the private sector – but one can envisage a UKRI budget of around £11 billion by 2027 under this scenario.

Increases on this scale would further vindicate the case for UKRI’s creation, and would be warmly embraced by the research community. But to get from A to B, we need to start seeing staged, year-on-year increases from 2020 onwards, in the next spending review. Despite repeated references to the economic, social and cultural impacts of this investment, the sheer scale of the 2.4% target means that UKRI’s vision feels rather more input-driven than outcome-focused. And the trade-offs that now confront it – over balance, place and prioritisation in the funding system – will be far easier to reconcile in an environment of rising budgets than if the steady march to 2.4% grinds to a Brexit-induced halt.

3) UKRI’s values tick all the right boxes

One of the most impressive sections of the prospectus is that which sets out its four core values – collaboration; excellence; innovation and integrity – and the foundations of talent, trust, diversity, openness and transparency that underpin these values and UKRI’s wider vision. There is a great deal here to welcome.

Under innovation, there is a commitment “to support talented researchers and innovators to step into the unknown and to take risks” – backed up by the new Future Leaders Fellowship scheme, which will provide at least 550 early career researchers and innovators with funding for up to seven years. Under integrity, there is an interesting nod to “promote and safeguard the public value of research and innovation.” Has Mark Walport been reading Mariana Mazzucato’s latest? Or is this a reference to a Mark Moore notion of public value? (As the co-author of a vintage study of The Public Value of Science, I found myself intrigued…).

In terms of UKRI’s commitment to diversity, last week saw an announcement and call for members for a new external advisory group, to be chaired by Jennifer Rubin. Still to come over the next twelve months, as noted above, is a fuller strategy for talent, and an action plan for equality, diversity and inclusion

For me, the one thing missing is some acknowledgement of the points at which UKRI’s values inevitably come into tension. For example, the discussion of collaboration includes a welcome focus on “working across the whole of the UK”, but this can often conflict with the next value on the list – “excellence” – in balancing increases in regional investment against ever-greater concentration in the golden triangle of London-Oxford-Cambridge. It’s in such trade-offs that the real values of UKRI will become most obvious.

4) The battle over balance is yet to commence

Of all the items burning a hole in Sir Mark Walport’s in-tray, the much-anticipated review of balance across the research and innovation system is the most contentious. In the context of the 2.4% GDP target and the next spending review, the approach that UKRI adopts, and the recommendations it makes to ministers, will have long-term significance for the shape of the funding system.

There are multiple dimensions of balance to consider: between individual disciplines and councils, and new cross-disciplinary schemes; between QR, responsive mode and directed funding for industrial strategy, global challenges and other strategic priorities; between the south-east of England and the rest of the UK. Although the prospectus includes an obligatory nod to the importance of curiosity-driven research (p.20), overall there are few crumbs of comfort for traditional mono-disciplinary researchers, or lone scholars in the social sciences and humanities.

For now, UKRI is keeping its powder dry. In interviews yesterday, Sir Mark stressed that any redistribution of funding would be done cautiously and without any sudden shifts. The prospectus adopts a similar tone: “We will continue to champion both responsive and strategic modes of funding to enable discovery-led research to flourish in the UK and drive impact from new knowledge and breakthroughs….”

Nonetheless, the outcomes of a balance review are likely to be a central plank of the fuller strategy UKRI has promised, particularly as they will coincide with the next round of research council allocations through the 2019 spending review. The question remains, how to run such a process effectively, while ensuring a step change in performance, and keeping the majority of stakeholders onside?

In his book A University Education, David Willetts’ explains why he considered such a review but stepped back from the brink. One only has to cast back six years to the uproar that greeted EPSRC’s modest attempts to tweak its funding allocations – including at one point a coffin being deposited on the steps of Number 10 by a group of disgruntled chemists to mark the supposed “death of British science”. Three years later, Walport himself was caught in the crossfire of unhappiness over the 2015 research capital allocations. So he doesn’t need reminding of the pitfalls that lie ahead.

A final interesting nugget, relevant to these debates over balance debates, is a discussion of the Haldane Principle. Here we learn that, to mark 100 years since Viscount Haldane’s 1918 report, UKRI “will host a conference late in 2018 which will examine how the recommendations of this seminal report have shaped the way research is commissioned and performed in the UK.” I trust that David Edgerton, historian and author of an influential paper on The Haldane Principle and other invented traditions in science policy will be given a prominent slot on the agenda.

5) Get ready for the new Strategic Priorities Fund

Those of us who have just about wrapped our brains around GCRF (for global challenges) and ISCF (for industrial strategy) will have to learn a new acronym. The biggest new announcement in the prospectus is the Strategic Priorities Fund, or SPF, as a third stream of directed funding. This isn’t a great surprise: the need for a “common research fund” formed one of Sir Paul Nurse’s original recommendations. But until now, we’ve had little detail about how this would work.

There is no clear indication of the budget of the SPF, nor its initial themes. Indeed, we may never get a headline number – like the £1.5 billion that accompanied the launch of GCRF – as tranches of SPF funding emerge piecemeal from different parts of the system over coming years.

But it’s clear that the SPF will pick up topics which don’t neatly fit under existing schemes, but are of strategic importance to the UK; as the prospectus describes it, “high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation…in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home.” If DfID and overseas aid agendas have determined the GRCF’s priorities, and HMT, BEIS and industrial strategy have done the same for ISCF, the main influence on SPF themes will be other Whitehall departments. This is the route through which a range of cross-cutting issues – security, housing, transport, environment, welfare, social cohesion, employability and skills – could find a route to more strategic investment. We are told that BEIS will soon publish more details. For now, it’s a case of watch this space…

6) UKRI is committed to robust evaluation

Another welcome strand of the prospectus is its focus on rigorous, evidence-informed evaluation. Part of this will involve more intelligent use of existing datasets, but novel approaches will also be required: “We will seek to go beyond project- or programme-level evaluation, making links and joining up data collection processes…”

This evaluative lens will be directed internally: “We have developed a framework for tracking and reporting UKRI performance.” (p.43). And it will face outwards: “To measure our performance…we will monitor a broad set of outcomes with a wide range of quantitative and qualitative indicators.”

A dedicated team in UKRI’s strategic core, headed by Jo Peacock, will lead these activities through a “UKRI Data Hub”. This team will also look to link to capacity elsewhere in the research system. The bigger opportunity here is to invest in more distributed capacity across the UK system for research on research, or “meta-research“. This fast-growing, interdisciplinary field combines machine learning, data analytics and scientometrics, with a blend of qualitative methods. Wellcome Trust recently issued a funding call for pilot projects in this field. If UKRI did the same, it could be a game-changer for UK capacity and leadership in meta-research, and provide UKRI with a rich seam of real-time intelligence on how the system is performing.

7) UKRI is less fluent articulating its social and cultural mission

Throughout the prospectus, there is an assured confidence whenever business and economic impacts are being discussed. The 2.4% GDP target and the industrial strategy provide ambitious goals for these strands of UKRI’s mission. On the social and cultural side, UKRI feels less sure of its footing. It lists a number of laudable goals – “supporting society to become enriched, healthier, more resilient and sustainable” – but there’s no clear sense (yet) of how more investment in R&D will help to achieve these. It’s also surprising how little attention is paid to geography and place within the document, beyond a reference to the new Strength in Places Fund

It feels at points like the document lacks a vocabulary with which to articulate social challenges. We are told (p.8) that: “Society is changing. The rising use of social media is changing the nature of discussion.” Is the use of Facebook really the most significant feature of social change? What about rising levels of inequality and social dislocation?

There is an encouraging section on public engagement (p.39), which promises support for further investment and experimentation, building on programmes like Sciencewise: “We will run an open call for proposals from consortia of higher education institutes, research institutes and external stakeholders to support a small number of high quality research projects that place citizen participation at their heart. We will review our public engagement programmes and develop a new public engagement vision and strategy by March 2019.”

Overall, the UKRI prospectus is a promising start. Even if it reminds me at points of Labour’s 2001 election manifesto – “a lot done, a lot to do” – we now have a much sharper sense of where UKRI is heading, what methods it will use to get there, and the arguments and opportunities that lie ahead.

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