Strategic Developments at UKRI

The new super-research council (in UK terms) UKRI that acts as an umbrella organisation – sitting above the seven research councils plus Innovate UK and Research England – launched its Strategic Prospectus a few days ago. Not so much a strategy, more an attempt to set out the steps needed to be taken and the areas to be focussed on as the new organisation attempts to formulate its actual strategy for the years ahead. These are matters of great import to the research community. Much money is at stake, as well as reputations and political goodwill, as the new team get their feet under the table. Others have already written (see here, here and here for instance) about this nascent organisation which was created in the wake of the 2014 Nurse Review, in terms more or less favourable. Furthermore, science and innovation are getting much (more) attention from the Government as it seeks to create a post-Brexit world that is still economically healthy. Many big questions remain. Here I highlight some of the topics I believe are particularly critical.

Firstly there is the question of how UK science will align with our European partners once we don’t have automatic access to Horizon2020’s successor programme Horizon Europe. The Government has set out its objectives this week in an official position paper. In this document it is noted with apparent approval that ‘in the UK’s top universities, 37% of academic staff are non-UK’ (I’m not going to quibble about which universities it is including as ‘top’; it is obvious that our institutions are full of non-UK faculty who make crucial contributions to our success in research as well as in winning ERC grants) and that ‘arrangements on issues including….researcher mobility’ are needed. Quite. We all know that, but not how the circle will be squared.

Rather grudgingly the document also states that ‘Subject to the structure of the programme, the level of influence provided for in the terms and an assessment of value for money, we would be willing to offer a fair contribution to the programme costs’. I wonder how well that will be received in Brussels. The Prime Minister has also stated this week, in her big speech on science, that she hopes for ‘full association’ with the new EU programme. Associated country status comes in many forms and, as Switzerland found some years back, it isn’t always easy to negotiate an agreement that is satisfactory and certainly not at speed. We will have to see whether all these warm words mean anything to the rest of the EU and whether the glacial speed of negotiations we see elsewhere in the Brexit landscape move fast enough in this space for us to join Horizon Europe. I sincerely hope that where there is a will there is a way. I am quite sure from my own conversations in Brussels there are many who are as keen to find a way for us to access EU funding as we ourselves are.

Secondly I would highlight the relatively-newly-established industrial strategy (laid out in the autumn’s White Paper) as a key element that UKRI needs to get right as it develops its own strategy. Will the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund succeed when previous attempts to support increases in our innovation, productivity and economic output have not had the desired effect? So far my impression is that this fund is somewhat ad hoc and its alignment with the Industrial Strategy White Paper (which appeared after the initiation of the fund competition) less than perfect. I think the community at large applauds this re-introduction of an industrial strategy but the proof of the pudding may still be far off.

Added to this, of course, is the fund announced this week, the Strength in Places Fund, which is primarily directed at those parts of the country which have not been thriving in recent years. For many that will be perceived as ‘beyond the Golden Triangle’, but sitting in Cambridge as I do – itself a city thriving so extensively it is in danger of strangling itself by its success coupled with a lack of appropriate infrastructure of transport and housing – I cannot but be aware you don’t have to go far along the A11 or A10 northwards to find pockets of extreme deprivation; regions where agriculture dominates and education is less valued than here. Cambridge has a vast hinterland that is as economically challenged as the North East or North West, it is just too easy for some not to look beyond the alleged ivory towers and forget the Fens and the coastal towns beyond and their problems.  My own University is very conscious of this, but doesn’t always know how to interact more effectively with the rural surrounds.

These two Funds are crucial aspects of the new UKRI mission, all tied in with the Government’s stated desire to reach a national level of R+D of 2.4% of GDP (requiring, as has been pointed out, a massive injection of private funds as well as Government money), but there is another aspect of the Nurse Review and the creation of UKRI that I have a particular interest in. Interdisciplinarity. A theme that turns up on my blog not infrequently. What does UKRI’s new strategic prospectus have to say about this? There are warm words in there. It will apparently:

Drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home. It will ensure that good ideas are supported that might once have been more challenged by organisational boundaries. It will give pioneering research the space to develop, laying the foundations for future capability.

It will also

Ensure the system is able to respond to strategic priorities and opportunities…… In addition, the Strategic Priorities Fund will ensure that strategically important research and innovation which is not aligned with other funding programmes can seek direct support. The Strategic Priorities Fund will provide a mechanism for increasing agility within the system, enabling funders to respond rapidly and ensure the UK remains at the cutting edge.

My understanding is that the pot of money which might ‘drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research’ is likely to come from the Strategic Priorities Fund. But how will this be allocated? Will UKRI be able to crack that perennial problem of how to assess interdisciplinary research so that genuinely ground-breaking proposals are funded not nice, safe, conservative applications that sit cosily within some familiar ecological niche of research? The detail, as with so much of the Strategic Prospectus, is lacking to date. If cutting-edge and novel interdisciplinary research is to be funded, the stuff that currently falls down the cracks between individual research councils, it is imperative that this money is not simply tossed in the direction of one research council who is then told to collaborate with another one to disperse the cash.  I hear rumours that unfortunately that is just what is happening and it simply will not suffice. New structures  both for any calls that are issued and their subsequent assessment will be needed if this money is genuinely going to facilitate the most exciting areas to take off and flourish.

Of course almost all of the big societal challenges require interdisciplinarity. Such challenges will no doubt be covered by specific calls in Energy, Healthy Ageing, AI and Robotics etc. These topics are probably better understood and served already. It is the smaller scale, perhaps blue skies kind of areas, which do not necessarily thrive under big consortia or the societal challenges label. But that is not to say they will not provide the route into the solutions of tomorrow, even if they haven’t yet got a convenient and sexy tag. I, for one, will be watching the UKRI’s performance – and I hope helping them by way of discussion and input too – to see if they can manage to solve the conundrum of interdisciplinarity for the good of the whole UK.

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