Getting the Balance Right

Without much fanfare, the allocations across the different research councils have just been announced until the end of the current spending round.  What processes went into making decisions about the distribution between the different research councils is not obvious, or whose decisions these were. Maybe some reader can tell me whether the decision about the split between the research councils was made simply within BEIS or by the UKRI Board itself.  The original Nurse Review – which led to the creation of UKRI – stated, as part of the recommendations that such an organisation should permit ‘when necessary reallocation of budget between Research Council portfolios’ and maybe that is what has been done. The UKRI Board itself has set out its direction of travel in the Strategic Prospectus, but – although there is much said about transparency and the production of a multi-year operational plan – I cannot see it spelling out how the distribution of funds is to be made. Maybe it is not under its control. Does any reader know, as it is easy to miss such things in the small print?

Whoever made those decisions, when I looked at the allocations what struck me was that the AHRC sees almost a 50% increase (admittedly from the lowest baseline by a significant margin) over the next two years but NERC sees an approximately 10% decrease* (but see clarification below).  I found this latter troubling as we have been struggling through a heatwave across essentially the whole of the northern hemisphere; is environmental research really that unimportant? Most of the other budgets are not significantly changed, with EPSRC remaining the largest by some substantial margin. InnovateUK also sees a substantial increase by around 25%.

Interestingly, a few days before these allocations were announced the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee itself announced an inquiry into the balance and effectiveness of research and innovation. They are clearly wanting to check that all appropriate questions are being asked regarding the large sums of money going into science, broadly defined. The playing field is made all the muddier as, in line with the Government’s stated goal of moving towards 2.4% GDP being spent on research and innovation by 2027 there are many pots of government money not under UKRI’s control (or only partially so in some cases). This is obviously the case with the new money just announced for Catapults, amounting to £780M to add to a previous £180M announced in July for the North East of England.

Catapult Centres are described as designed ‘to remove barriers to innovation, help new entrants to increase competition and innovation in the economy by levelling the field for disruptors to challenge incumbent.’ according to the Government website. The recently announced money is overwhelmingly not going to go to the Golden Triangle, but to areas which are often seen as (variously) cash-starved or underperforming. Given their locations, it is to be hoped their activities will facilitate spillovers into the local economy. The evidence is building that such investment does indeed stimulate other investment, as demonstrated already by the Rotherham-based Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre/Nuclear Manufacturing Advanced Centre (attached to the University of Sheffield) which have recently attracted new manufacturing centres for both Boeing and Maclaren to the region and which, through the recent Catapult awards, will receive an additional £126.7k in funding.

This effect of spillover ties in with the evidence from a recent study looking at what happened in the wake of relocating the UK Synchrotron light source from the North West to a site not far from Oxford, as Diamond was built. Research outputs – those directly utilising the synchrotron and, perhaps more surprisingly, those which had no connection at all with Diamond – blossomed. The conclusion is, I’m afraid, another manifestation of the Matthew effect (paraphrased as to him that hath shall be given) whereas, it seems only too likely, the area around the original source at Daresbury (near Warrington, an already depressed part of England unlike the thriving Oxfordshire countryside) suffered significantly as a consequence of the move.

When it comes to this issue of location, the UKRI has a new fund to try to drive a ‘place-based approach to research and innovation funding, to support significant regional growth’. The Strength in Places Fund is a relatively small fund, but it is to be hoped it might work constructively in tandem with the Catapults when it comes to stimulation of the local economy. It is too early to know what the impact of it will be, but it is reassuring to see a specific fund set up labelled with this ‘place’ banner as opposed to a statement that was once made to me by someone who should really have known better that there were ‘two kinds of excellence’ – the quality of the science itself and the place it was being done. Both are important but they are not two faces of the same coin. The distinction should be recognized, as this new fund seems set to do.

So, for the Science Select Committee as it takes its evidence, there will be many issues to consider; there are a variety of different balancing acts to take into account (and I haven’t even mentioned in this post the challenge of getting truly interdisciplinary research going so that it does not need to be squeezed into individual research council funding, a point I discussed at some length recently and one which is close to my heart). The landscape is complex as is its organisation and governance, but it is certainly one many will be scrutinising, particularly those who set out sceptical of the need for ever setting UKRI up in the first place.

One issue I am sure the Select Committee will wish to consider is that discussed in the recent report by Sheffield professors Richard Jones (a physicist) and James Wilsdon (a specialist in research policy), both of whom previously were involved in the production of the Metrics Tide, a report James chaired. Entitled ‘The Biomedical Bubble’ and published by Nesta, this new report has set the cat amongst the MRC pigeons, as tweets and ripostes make clear. To put it at its simplest, the Jones/Wilsdon report argues that too much money has gone into basic biomedical research, lulled into a belief of its winning ways by the Nobel Prizes and high returns on research investment in the pharmaceutical industry in the past, but not reflecting what might make most difference to health outcomes in the UK today. Public health is poorly funded, for instance, and future health improvements may be driven as much by developments in social care or IT issues as finding new drugs that extend life for cancer sufferers by a few months (however harsh that may sound to those whose life might end up so extended). I felt the case was made convincingly.

Despite the authors’ conclusions being backed up by substantial hard data in the report, from the ONS and other sources, the MRC have nevertheless chosen to take exception without really engaging with the broad but fundamental questions being asked. Fiona Watt, the MRC’s relatively new Executive Chair, has written rejecting the central thesis of the Nesta report that a bubble exists saying ‘It is essential for the health and wealth of the UK that investment in biomedical research is not a bubble, but subject to sustained growth.’ This is a conclusion which could be unkindly paraphrased as ‘keep giving us the money’.  Wilsdon has responded by saying that she is missing the point by looking parochially at the MRC’s own position when the report was ‘not about the MRC but a much broader set of issues’ including funds from public and charity investment as well as the role of the pharmaceutical industry. I have been invited to the Nesta discussion next month on the report and I look forward to hearing the arguments pro and con, but it will be very important not to get mired in inter-Research Council warfare but to remember the bigger picture the report’s authors were considering. At this juncture of rapid funding change, stopping to consider whether the status quo is correct seems to me well worth doing and not something to shy away from.

For the Select Committee members, as they sit down and try to sift through the evidence, I hope they can make sense of all the different strands of the increasingly complicated funding landscape. The Government’s commitment to increasing funding on science and innovation in the years ahead is welcome, challenging though it may be in the face of Brexit and its concomitant consequences for industry and academics alike. Putting money into different funds has a certain logic to it but makes establishing ‘balance’ and the decision-making processes much harder to get to grips with. (Cynically I would say we should remember that, give an academic a hoop to jump through and they are remarkably good at doing so; consequently we should expect to see the same proposals badged around place or industry or global challenge according to the day of the month and upcoming deadline.)

Keeping track of the balance between the strands and funding streams (as well as working out who controls which) will be no mean feat for the committee, or indeed for the rest of us. How do you balance the need to cope with food security in the face of global warming alongside the issues of an ageing population with increasing incidence of dementia? How do you decide if funding should go to the coastal towns or the old mining communities if you are going to spark regeneration? Who should be making which decisions. The questions are vast, the societal needs are enormous and yet we must never lose sight of the importance of the underpinning science. Plus, running as a constant thread through this is the importance of training/education of those who can drive innovation and be the brains and hands of the future. But that, of course, is the other half of science and education minister Sam Gyimah’s brief – split as it is between BEIS and DfE – and a topic for another post!

* Correction 13-8-18 I am informed by NERC that this drop in its allocation simply reflects the completion of the research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough. This vessel will be operational in 2019 and funding for it was channelled via NERC’s budget. I am relieved to know that the explanation does not indicate a meaningful reduction in research income, but it just reinforces how hard it is to make sense of the numbers with so little context given. In the past (Graeme Reid tells me in 2010 but not 2016) there was more explanation given, including the method of allocation. That this is missing does not help the research community.




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2 Responses to Getting the Balance Right

  1. Geoff Crossick says:

    An excellent piece, Athene. But on the AHRC increase let me explain that it is entirely accounted for by the fact that it manages the cross-cutting Fund for International Collaboration on behalf of all the research councils. It therefore doesn’t constitute an increase in AHRC funding at all, merely being allocated to and distributed through the AHRC. All those academics who’ve celebrated what looks like a welcome increase in arts and humanities funding were sadly mistaken. La lutte continue.

    • Thanks Geoff. As with the NERC correction I had wondered if there was some specific line-item that made up the difference, so it is really helpful to have that explanation. But, again, I would say this is the problem with publishing information with no background or context. It would seem that the allocations are essentially just finishing off the last CSR money with no one needing to face up to any difficult decisions at all! That will no doubt go on over the next months and years in the run-up to the next CSR,but whether this will be clear to the outside world or not remains to be seen. I hope there will be genuine debate. I hope the Commons Select Committee gets a well-rounded set of evidence to mull over.

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