Mission-driven research funding in the limelight

Structuring research funding around big, exciting “missions” is getting a lot of political traction

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

As ARIA gears up for action – though it’s been pretty quiet on that front recently, executive searches aside – we should probably expect the trend for mission-driven research to continue.

Previously on Wonkhe, James Coe set out for us science minister George Freeman’s agenda – including his valorisation of “moonshots”, for which you have to give the minister credit for not playing down after the failed satellite launch a couple of days before.

In a follow-up panel event for think tank Onward, who had hosted Freeman’s speech the previous day, University of Oxford’s John Bell certainly was singing the praises of mission-driven research, and wondering why universities are not incentivised to do more of it:

It’s about trying to head towards a result which actually makes a difference in the field you’re in. So it’s actually directionally based. It’s what industry does a lot of, so most industries are very mission-based, but the academic space doesn’t really have funding available to allow it to be mission-based.

However, later in the discussion former universities minister David Willetts sounded a note of caution over missions taking too central a stage in research funding:

There are problems if you focus on missions and don’t invest in general purpose technologies […] Missions depend on prior investment in general purpose technologies.

Willetts continued to note, in his own diplomatic style, that there are those who would argue that the investment which would have been made on Horizon Europe should instead go towards the “exciting ideas” other panellists had been proposing, from artificial intelligence to net zero – that this is what Plan B should be about. But his impression was that “the wider academic community has not yet bought into that”.

Willetts made a point about Horizon’s benefits that is applicable to missions in research more widely – there is a great strength in being forced to participate in a system where you are not “marking your own homework”. When one government or funder is able to decide what the important missions are, how we will know they’ve been achieved, and what criteria we are using to assess our progress along the way, there is a great risk that the outcomes will not be objectively evaluated.

George Freeman popped up at the end of the webinar and mentioned that he was hopeful that “whoever forms the next government carries on with this agenda”. This is another important issue for advocates of a mission-driven agenda to think carefully about – because the next government will have its own priorities, and a desire to stamp its mark on what the country’s “big ideas” are.

Willetts argued that the reason the academic community is still so attached to Horizon is not just an inability to accept Brexit – there is a real need for “a commitment and a funding programme that goes beyond the periods of Comprehensive Spending Review”.

With the current government, a mission lasting for ten months feels like a triumph. But it’s not enough, and really impactful research is going to require us to get serious about timescale – how about that for a mission?

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