A last chance to lobby for R&D at the Science and Technology Committee

There’s been rumours around the research end of the sector that things are not looking good for the spending review next week.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Sustained by the frequent use of aspirational figures (2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, £22bn a year by 2024-25), the Westminster government has allowed the idea that it wants to see England as a “science superpower” to become established – and initiatives like the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) have been seen as staging posts to a high-income, high-yield, innovative research and development future.

But in recent months the specific dates attached to these promises have appeared much less frequently, ARIA had stalled, and even Greg Clark (former minister responsible for the industrial strategy and current chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee) was unable to get a meaningful response from the Treasury or BEIS.

This concern led to a hearing featuring a selection of the UK’s “research leaders”:

  • John Kingman, former UKRI Chair
  • Nancy Rothwell, University of Manchester Vice Chancellor
  • Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute and Nobel Laureate
  • Peter Ratcliffe, Nobel Laureate
  • Adrian Smith, Royal Society President
  • Lord Browne of Madingley, Co-Chair of the Council for Science and Technology, which advises the Prime Minister on science and technology policy.
  • Andrew MacKenzie, Chair of UKRI

Though there are any number of fascinating questions you could ask a line up like that on research and research policy, the Commons Science and Technology Committee focused on the likelihood and possible impacts of a disappointing funding settlement. With the exception of Andrew MacKenzie, there was little expectation that anyone would have any answers – MacKenzie sensibly played his cards close to his chest, happy to confirm that UKRI had been “listened to” and that he was “very positive” that the message had been understood. It was almost enough to get him to admit he was “optimistic” about next week – although Greg Clark seemed keen to remind him that spending decisions are often made at the last possible minute and there may be more lobbying to do in the next few days.

We also got a sneak preview of early thoughts around the Nurse review – which has a broad remit to examine the current research ecosystem to consider improvements and diversification. Focus at the scoping stage has been on the value of leadership, the need for permeability across the system, and the eternal issue of bureaucracy. The report will emerge in April 2022, but Nurse was keen to emphasise that he was clear that it would call for an expansion of funding and should not be used as an excuse to delay the funding settlement.

The overall impression that can be taken from this hearing is that research values consistency and is against uncertainty. Everyone is hoping for a reliable and generous settlement devoid of ring-fences and ministerial wheezes (it was never explicitly stated but I was left with the impression that should ARIA disappear and the funding returned to core research funds at UKRI there would be few complaints) and nobody has any information.

It was, on balance, kind of Greg Clark to allow for this late lobbying activity – Andrew MacKenzie felt that the decision may already have been made, but Clark intends to write up findings and send them to Number 10 and the Treasury. But, to be honest, if either of these places have not yet got the message that research wants both money and stability I would be very surprised.

The most surprising revelation of the day was that Ottoline Leyser is a scrabble fan, and MacKenzie reported that she described investment in research via UKRI as a “triple word score” – multiplying the value of spending to a world-leading extent. That’s as good a lobbying line as any.

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