Sir John Kingman in conversation at Wonkfest

There is a rare object of consensus in our fractured politics.

Both the Tories and Labour stress the importance of the UK being world leading in research and development, the Conservatives through their push that 2.4 per cent of GDP be spent on research and Labour through their insistence on a Green New Deal.

On the stage at Wonkfest, we had Sir John Kingman, non-executive Chair at UK Research and Innovation. A former official at the Treasury, he was involved in five spending reviews during his time there and was influential on the government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. Kingman brings a wealth of experience to the role at UKRI.

How’s UKRI doing?

Founded through the work of Paul Nurse, UKRI acts as an umbrella organisation for the UK’s eight research councils, Innovate UK, and the then newly created Research England. Kingman recommended Nurse’s report as something still worth reading, for understanding the dramatic step in forming UKRI, and organisation tasked not just with allocating funding but for advocating for science and research.

His assessment as to the health of the body was positive – the current financial settlement is up from when UKRI was founded, from 6 to 8 billion per year, the largest increase such a body has seen in a long time. Any founding worries around the infantilisation of the individual research bodies has proved to be unfounded. Even with this organisation towering over the councils, it’s still possible to find great people to staff and run them, with the ESRC, MRC, EPSRC, and STFC all having been appointed new heads by UKRI’s CEO, Mark Walport.

There are of course challenges. Brexit, and its effect on funding in the UK was a concern of Kingman’s, along with the general atmosphere for research in the country. In addition, UKRI doesn’t have independence as to its resources and spending abilities. Kingman thinks that the organisation is in the position to do exciting things, but the core funding is very tight. As well as this, there is the planned retirement of Mark Walport. Kingman generously asked the audience whether there were any willing takers for Walport’s job.

On the 2.4 per cent target, he was clear as what needs to happen. Currently, two thirds of the UK’s research is performed in the private sector, with the remainder taking place in universities. From research, we know that funding funnelled into public sector research leads to an increase in research volume in the private sector. UKRI is the organisation that owns the 2.4 per cent goal. Through investing in UK university research and developing rich and deep relationships with the private sector, we are part of the way there to achieving our goals. With a strong policy voice as to the R&D flows in the wider economy, we can make the rest of the journey.

Sundry Dominic Cummings wheezes

The issue of Brexit of of vital importance to UK research. There exists a web of partnerships and collaboration that is shaped by our relationship with the European Union, but there is also the questions of international recruitment, visa policy, and the UK’s overall attractiveness which play into how Brexit will affect R&D. When and if Brexit finally happens, UKRI has taken steps to prepare for the fallout – ready to replace lost funding, in terms of money and the staff necessary to manage out new research grants.

Once we leave the EU, there will be a debate as to what relationship we will have with it. Chris Skidmore has been consistent that we will aim to remain part of schemes such as Horizon 2020, but clearly there will have to be complex negotiations. UKRI’s position, says Kingman, is that these will have to be done to achieve the best for UK’s research and development, but he is keen to point out that he can’t say how this will all play out, as the negotiations will happen at the government level, though UKRI will be heavily involved nonetheless.

Responding to the recent recommendations in the Queen’s speech that the UK set up a system similar to the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, Kingman wanted to dispute the idea that it was an attempt by some in the government to grab control of the research funding. Having spoken to some in No. 10, he wanted to make it clear that this was a policy idea that was far from implementation, and that they viewed it as part of a larger research jigsaw. He said that it could be an exciting idea. There could be lessons learned from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, where for each challenge in its portfolio there was a challenge leader.

The pipeline may be blocked

Moving on from this, Kingman was asked about how we should go about ensuring that we maintain a steady stream of bright young people opting for a career in research, a famously demanding career, especially during the early career. Kingman referred back to his statement about UKRI being the conscience of the research landscape, making the point that more than money draws people into research. We need to worry about the people doing the research, not just the money we make available to them.

However, Kingman was concerned about the status of the pipeline which leads people to research careers. You’re not going to be a researcher unless you’ve had a good education, and this begins long before you ever approach a university. While this is not something that is directly under UKRI’s remit, it is something that Kingman wanted to push for, to ensure that we have the research workforce that we will need in the future. The idea of the pipeline also related to the diversity issue in the STEM research force. KIngman agreed that this was a major issue, and pointed to the work being done on it by Jennifer Rubin, the Executive Champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for UKRI.

Moving on to tackle the REF, he wanted to make the case for a dual system, with not everything going through the REF. As a statutory requirement, you will always need to have it, but there are questions to be posed about allocation. With any metric system, there will always be an incentive to try and game the system, and that’s a game that UKRI plays against some of the smartest people in the country.

But when asked whether the UK has benefited from the REF, Kingman said yes. There are obviously issues with the REF, but many of the ideas before it were also unpopular with academics. Not every detail is perfect, but it is better to assess impact than not. We’re better off with it than without.

Questions from the floor

Johnny Rich from the Engineering Professors’ Council asked whether the research function of universities is well understood by the public and whether UKRI should care and Andy Westwood from Manchester University asked what responsibility UKRI should have for tackling regional inequality, especially post Brexit.

Kingman took the opportunity here to highlight the Strategic Engagement fund, describing it as the government’s attempt to have its cake and eat it too, by funding high quality research that also has an impact in the country’s regions. More broadly, he made the point that he is always shocked at the number of cities and towns in the UK with world leading research happening in them. Outside of the United States, any other country would kill for the UK’s research capacity, and that is something we should be proud of, something we should promote, and something we should use toward our chosen goals.

Mary Curnock Cook then asked further questions about how Kingman viewed the problems with the pipeline, whether he saw it as limited to STEM, just mathematical skills, or ever more niche aspects of the curriculum. He responded that it had more to the level of teaching at certain schools. Many state-school-educated students will be taught subjects by people lacking the appropriate degrees, and therefore will lag behind students from better schools with better-skilled workforces. Even with schemes designed to help them, there are fewer students entering university for these subjects from working class backgrounds. If we fix the pipeline, not only will we be ensuring the future workforce for UK research, we will help boost the economy, as those students will be more likely to earn more money after graduation.

After a focus on STEM, a woman from Goldsmiths, University of London, asked what the place was in UKRI’s approach for the arts and the social sciences. Kingman related a story where he inadvertently insulted a group of humanities researchers by saying their work was cheap. But in essence, Kingman said that UKRI could achieve real value for money by funding said research; ten world class research projects in the humanities cost far less than a single particle accelerator. And in an economy dominated by the service sector and a country known for its cultural output, there’s no reason that funding for research in the arts and social sciences can’t take pride of place.

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