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What is research bureaucracy for? The Tickell review reports

James Coe reviews The Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy and finds much to admire - while still being filled with questions on how this relates to the future of research
This article is more than 1 year old

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

The Independent Review of Research Bureaucracy led by Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Birmingham, has today released its report.

Spanning a swift 63 pages no words are wasted in a report which is largely about wasted words.

Bureaucracy: hard to spell and hard to stop

To take a step back it’s important to consider what research bureaucracy is and where it comes from.

The research system has a dizzying array of actors within it. There are researchers who are parts of universities, universities who can work on their own or with partners both national and international and there are funders who fund the work of researchers through universities.

Navigating this system requires staff in universities who can write, submit, and manage bids, corresponding staff at funding bodies who can assess bids, monitor projects, and distribute funds, and digital platforms which can stick these two worlds together. This is before layering in the complexities of ODA funding, funding through charities, or external bodies like the NHS or the Ministry of Defence.

Setting out what the bureaucracy is makes it easier to understand where bureaucracy comes from. Primarily, it’s the interactions between the moving parts of the system. The overall success rate for grants is around 20 per cent which drives three sets of behaviours which clog up the system. The hyper competitive nature of funding leads to a “gold-plating” of bids which takes time, people, and money. At the funder end this means that it’s necessary to assess a large volume of often high-quality applications which adds further time. And as this is public money there needs to be confidence this funding is being spent appropriately, equitably, and in a manner which would command public confidence.

It is not so much a single bureaucracy but thousands and thousands of interactions between researchers, universities, and funders, overlaid by government priorities and responsibilities to the public which at a macro level make up the UK research funding landscape. At the micro level of the single researcher in an institution this whole thing can feel frustrating, confusing, and a waste of time in filling out lots of forms, often with the same information, with ultimately a one in five chance of receiving any funding at the end of it.

The big view of the system

In his review Tickell is clear in splitting out the moving parts of the research system. He is right to highlight that there is a difference between reducing the bureaucracy in a system and simply moving it around the system. For example, he steers clear of suggesting a body like a research council should undertake significantly more of the same work to alleviate the pressure from universities. He is also right to point out that because of differences in size, scale, and capacity, not every institution feels the weight of bureaucracy the same way. It is a Sisyphean task to cut tape in one area without simply jamming up another part of the research system.

It is then perhaps no surprise that his recommendations are not prescriptive but more of a framework for Government, funders, and universities to consider. 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.

There is also room for a gentle exploration of some new ideas. Tickell leaves room to consider ideas around lotteries or randomised funding systems. There is a tease that universities could have greater autonomy where they have a track record of robust assurance. The idea of a two-stage funding mechanism to reduce unnecessary burden where bids are unlikely to be funded is also interesting. Much like ARIA we will never know how well these approaches will work until they are given chance to succeed, and given the issues with the current system, they are surely due a fair hearing.

The hard to solve

There are issues which escape the scope of this report. Issues of security are never going to be dealt with fully in a report of this size but the tone of developing better understandings of risk, engendering trust in the system, and encouraging collaboration with national bodies, is a welcome departure from some of the less helpful rhetoric emerging from Government. Equally, there is not a lot of consideration in how the system might improve EDI outcomes but nonetheless a more streamlined data collection system pre-award could be an important first step in better understanding the diversity, or lack of, within the research funding ecosystem.

Elsewhere, there are lots of sensible recommendations on standardising forms across research councils where practical, reducing assurance on less risky activity, integrating platforms to ensure intra-operability and that data only need be collected once, better communications support on what is and isn’t important to funders and those seeking funds, clarity on the arrival and dispersal of funds to enable universities to plan better, and more support for national bodies to integrate activities, advice, and support where possible. There is very little to disagree with and if it leads to more time researching than writing bids the sector will be better for it.

A different time

Beyond how the research system is administered there are some significant questions of what the research system is for which remain unanswered. This review was commissioned when Amanda Solloway was Science Minister where the slogan of the time was to “build back better” and this time by “unleashing innovation.” Levelling up was still being vaguely applied to skills, transport, and opportunity, but it did not have the currency it does (or did) within the Conservative Party. This review did after all begin a year before the Levelling Up White Paper.

As such it cannot resolve the major research divides which will shape the research bureaucracies to come. Whether research funding should continue to be about excellence or whether it needs to be much more sensitive to place. The extent to which capital investment should be about releasing latent demand or crowding in around existing benefits. How far inefficiencies in the system are tolerable if the increase opportunity for those underrepresented within the current system. And the new bureaucracy which will emerge post Horizon Europe.

The Grant Review of UKRI has now reported, as has the Tickell review into research bureaucracy. The Nurse review into the research system overall is surely not far behind.

Together, they will tell us how the future may operate, collectively they risk falling short of telling us what the future could be like.

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