David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

The UK has a fair claim to be world leading in research.

It’s not unequivocable–the US and China produce more research, and providers from those systems regularly top those “research power” league tables otherwise smart people appear to care about–but the UK’s competitiveness and track record is one measure of the quality of our university sector in particular.

However, around 10 Downing Street a delicate balancing act is taking place. The team around Boris Johnson love science and love research, but are decidedly lukewarm about universities.

It is with this tension in mind we should read the government’s new “UK Research and Development Roadmap”, a consultation (respond here) aimed at “revitalising” the whole system of science, research, and innovation. All of your favourite hand-wavy terms are here: there are “moonshots”, there is a “new normal”, and a “one in a generation opportunity”. And that’s just in Alok Sharma’s introduction.

Bigger bets

Much of the mood music is stuff we have heard before. We know from previous announcements (and indeed, Dominic Cummings’ blog posts) that there will be an emphasis on taking more and larger long term risks on ambitious programmes and institutes in order to achieve potentially greater gains, and on support for applied research. Funding as a whole will move more quickly–“light-touch, ultra-fast and flexible processes with minimal red tape”–and there will be a focus on interdisciplinary and international collaborations.

Covid-19 is framed very much as a case study (though the document is laden with others–even “synthetic phonics” gets a mention for those of us who have followed the current Number 10 team since their DfES days). It is perceived that the speedy and open way in which work has been carried out during the pandemic can act as a model for future activity.

But there has also been recent evidence of the fragility of the research system. The dependency on third-party funding and international student fees is positioned as a reason that the overall sustainability of research needs to be considered, with more information expected during the autumn spending review.

A non-hostile environment

Front and centre of the proposals are plans to make it easier for talented researchers and promising students to work and study in the UK, and measures to make it a more attractive option. We are a long way beyond Theresa May’s hostility to international students–itself an ossification of a long-standing Home Office prejudice.

An Office for Talent, based in Number 10 (a name that is beyond parody), sits alongside the previously announced Global Talent Visa. International students who complete a PhD from Summer 2021 can stay in the UK for three years afterwards to live and work, an increase on the two year offer available to international undergraduate and master’s students.

There are also measures to grow the domestic research talent pipeline–a vague promise of a “new deal for postgraduate research funding” includes investment in research training, numbers of students supported, new models of delivery, enhanced stipend levels, and support for transition between stages. We also see a keenness to engage with the concerns and needs of early career researchers, and more detail on the way UKRI will implement the Technician Commitment.

People, culture, and place

A People and Culture strategy will be developed to address challenges around the attractiveness of research and development careers. The current low-salary, short-term, normal for researchers is a widely identified problem, as are the ways in which researchers and technicians find it difficult to shift between academia and industry at various times during their careers. A recognition of a lack of diversity in research and development, with a lack of senior BAME representation noted in particular, underpins a welcome commitment to:

remove any barriers and dismantle any inequalities in the system that limit the ambitions, inclusion and participation of people from any background”

There will also be a UK R&D Place Strategy, aimed at addressing regional imbalances in research, innovation, and development activities. There will be tailored support for regions in which less research and development activities are currently happening, with the whole strategy tying in to the government’s wider “levelling up” agenda. The development of this strategy will “ask whether our existing, core funding schemes deliver sufficient economic benefit to places across the UK”. We’re very much heading towards a far more decentralised system, with an expectation that access to public funded research infrastructure (including on university campuses) will be made more widely accessible.

But we also see a parallel emphasis on global collaboration, highlighting again the example of work around Covid-19 and noting existing successes in normal times. The big changes recently–the uncertainty around access to European Union funding streams, and the merger of DfID into the Foreign Office–are noted. There will be a “new, agile, offer” for global collaboration, and although we get a list of potential high level benefits from this we don’t get much information as to how it will all work.

It is notable that the 0.7 per cent of GDP target for international aid gets a mention, although this stops short of a commitment to continue this level of funding. On European collaboration we get a repeat of the government’s “ambition” to participate in Horizon Europe and Euratom R&T, and the promise of “ambitious” alternatives to address the funding gap that would be left otherwise–including a Discovery Fund supporting early- and mid-career researchers for medium to long term work. We can add to this a promise to leverage the 2021 UK G7 presidency, via multilateral innovation networks and leadership on global challenges. And watch out for a reinvigoration of the Trusted Research agenda on intellectual property rights.

Healthy systems

The UK is home to more than 500 nationally and internationally significant research infrastructures, across a range of subject domains, ranging from the big toys beloved of physicists to administrative data used by social scientists. All of those who run and use this infrastructure will be interested in the promised onset of a “flexible approach” to deliver value for money and keep assets appropriately maintained. This comes alongside an identified need to think longer term about much of this infrastructure and the way it is supported.

There are also recommendations dealing with a loosely drawn “R&D system”. This is currently felt to be unnecessarily bureaucratic, inefficient, and risk-averse – and data that could drive new discoveries and innovation is often difficult to access and use. There’ll be a “major review” of methods used to assess and fund research in UKRI, drawing on the in-house “Reforming our Business” programme that got shot of pathways to impact.

But how will we get rid of all this “red tape”? The roadmap cites smarter approaches to evaluation, embracing modern methods of peer review, and tackling (hurrah!) the problematic use of metrics in research. There’s a big boost for open research practices – all research outputs funded by the UK taxpayer will be freely available, and there’s action on non-traditional research outputs such as data and software. There’s a mystifyingly vague promise to “reinvigorate participation in the peer review system”, which mentions incentivising the process.

Details of the already announced £22bn a year funding for research will be fully unveiled at the spending review, but there are commitments here to reconsider the balance of funding between discovery and applied research, and oversight to ensure coherence and efficiency in funding. There’ll be a cross government review of how research institutions are set up, funded, and governed – with the new funding body for advanced research (Dom’s DARPA) being one of several new approaches to the design of research institutions that will be trialled.

Higher education at the end

Despite the clear centrality of universities to this agenda–and indeed the central role universities need to play in any claims for world leading UK research–most of the sector-focused stuff is squeezed into four paragraphs at the end of the roadmap.

We can look forward to a refresh of the relationship between government and universities and a review of mechanisms used to support university research. This explicitly includes QR funding, with an aim to provide a “healthy balance” between this and project-based funding.

And there’s cautious good news on full economic costs. The government will work with other funders to consider offering FEC at a higher rate, but this will be balanced with the need for “efficient” funding.

Writing about research and development without putting universities in a central role is a little bit like writing a review of literature with only glancing mentions of Shakespeare. It’s an interesting exercise, but although there is a lot to be welcomed in this document, an exercise that blunts a lot of the good intentions and impulses in this roadmap.

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