Marking UKRI’s scorecard

UKRI is still a relatively young organization, trying to find its way in a funding landscape that has been impacted by Brexit, a pandemic and now soaring inflation eating away at the value of every grant or PhD stipend. Nevertheless, it has had four years to try and work out its raison d’être and how it is more than the sum of its nine constituent parts. The Grant Review looking into its operation and which has just reported, does not seem convinced it has managed to do this, reflecting that

‘Most of the evidence I have received supports the original case and objectives for UKRI, resulting from the 2015 Nurse Review – a single cohesive UKRI incorporating nine previously separate organisations. My review notes that UKRI has partially met the objectives that were set at its formation but that gaps remain.’

Furthermore, it identifies ambiguity about how this multi-pronged organization is operating, with some confusion as to the nature of the entity.

‘In carrying out this review we found that UKRI responsibilities are currently perceived to be held either by i) one or more councils ii) jointly by all councils or iii) centrally. It is the view of this review that ii) and iii) should be seen to be one and the same and are described as such. Today they are not.’

This seems to be a serious failing. What is UKRI? If it continues to act as a nine-legged beast, how can the research community derive any benefit from the synergies that I believe were originally envisaged in the 2014 Nurse Review, which gave rise to its creation? When will it work out its identity beyond being a conglomeration?

The Grant Review covers a lot of ground, around governance and systems. Here I will just pick out a few issues close to my own heart. Others will no doubt highlight different aspects.

When Paul Nurse wrote his Review he was clear about many potential benefits, two of which were that such an over-arching organization:

  • would be able to oversee the redistribution of money between research councils as areas for research evolved, in place of the essentially static distribution of the research funding cake that had been in place for decades, and
  • would have the ability to fund interdisciplinary research appropriately, without proposals getting batted between individual councils and never finding a true home.

One can argue that the first of these has been hampered by the lack of long-term funds being committed by the government, but the recent Spending Review means such redistribution can now be done. On the second point, the UKRI’s CEO Ottoline Leyser has herself admitted (when speaking to the Lords Science and Technology Committee) they haven’t done a great job about this. At one point it looked as if the Strategic Priorities Fund would handle this strand of research, with the 2018 Strategic Prospectus stating that the fund would:

  • Drive an increase in high-quality multi- and inter-disciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home.
  • Ensure that UKRI’s investment links up effectively with Government departments’ research priorities and opportunities, encouraging funding for research that crosses boundaries between UKRI councils and government departments.
  • Ensure the system is able to respond to strategic priorities and opportunities.

That Fund is now being wound up, without it really having achieved these high-level objectives, although undoubtedly some interesting programmes have been funded. However, it has not been the panacea to multi- or inter-disciplinary research I, for one, had certainly hoped to see. As the Grant Review laments ‘the potential for interdisciplinary research has not been fully realised’.

However, more optimistically, it also states that

‘The 2021 SR settlement gave UKRI greater flexibility in their approach to funding multi and interdisciplinary research …. New cross-cutting funds will now be allocated through a shared pool with decisions on prioritisation and spend made by UKRI. The multi-year settlement should allow UKRI to embed this new approach …., for example there are plans for councils to pool funding for talent development and interdisciplinary research over the SR period.’

So, I will have to live in hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, the long-standing problems around interdisciplinary research will finally be cracked. (I should make clear, I do not mean grand challenge type research which probably works well, but the vital underpinning research that can spawn new, perhaps unexpected directions and approaches).

The Grant Review report has a lot to say about efficiency, highlighting the surprising growth in numbers of staff employed in the central Corporate Hub, often with apparent duplication of function with those sitting in individual research councils. A 55% increase in staff at the centre was noted. One of the issues that has long concerned me personally lies in communications. This was an issue I raised with Mark Walport, when he was still at the helm. If my memory serves me right, I was told there were 137 staff across the whole organization involved in communication, perhaps part of this central hub swelling. Yet, I would suggest, communication has not been the organisation’s strong point. Think of how they handled the ODA cuts; or the sorry ResearchFish saga in which UKRI seems to have encouraged ‘appropriate action’ against academics who got fed up with the clunky ResearchFish impact-tracking process.

Another extraordinary episode, reported yesterday and this time involving a NERC-funded DTP, suggests an unhelpful attitude towards the cost of living crisis, with PhD students being advised they could find spare-time jobs to supplement their stipends as babysitters or Avon consultants. Although this cannot be laid directly at UKRI’s door, when I asked Ottoline herself about the problems research students face back in March, she batted the question away, stating – no doubt entirely correctly if unsympathetically – that UKRI had a fixed pot of money to dole out. Since then, they have had plenty of time to work out a strategy, not to mention a comms strategy, that does not leave students reduced to selling make-up to make ends meet.

If there really are 137 communication experts across the organization, perhaps they need additional training in how to communicate in a way that builds trust, rather than destroys it. The Grant Review does not particularly focus on this aspect of the Corporate Hub, looking more at IT issues and non-standardisation of forms and procedures, but it does note a high turnover of staff. (To be fair, this seems true in many organisations post-Covid, so it may not reflect a general unhappiness with working conditions.)

The final aspect from the Review I’d like to touch on relates to how UKRI fits into the wider ecosystem, and in particular with its masters in Whitehall. This seems to be another area of ambiguity, with the decision-making process being unwieldy and slow. Of course, the blame for this cannot be laid solely, perhaps even mostly, at UKRI’s door, but it certainly leads to problems for the community, and – again – strong messaging from the UKRI centre could reassure that there is pushback and plain speaking in the interactions. That ESRC is still lacking an Executive Chair is a particularly stark example of how the interplay with Government is failing. As the Grant Review says more generally.

‘BEIS should ensure that UKRI has the stability and autonomy it needs to effectively plan and deliver. This will require setting out a clearer line of responsibility between BEIS and UKRI on strategy and delivery, as well as the criteria used to assess performance.’

Paul Nurse may have believed a benign Whitehall would work well with a strong pan-research council organization, and that ministerial interventions would not get in its way. Sadly, that does not seem to be quite how it has panned out in practice.

Across the board, there are clearly areas for improvement at UKRI noted by David Grant. The community will hope the report has impact, as they say, at HQ.

[It will not have escaped notice that my blog has been silent for some time. The reasons for this are many and various, perhaps best summed up as post-pandemic-induced writer’s block, but of course that doesn’t really give much of an explanation. Suffice to say, it is not a deliberate cessation but equally, just because I am tempted back to writing a post by the publication of the Grant Review, I cannot promise to return to my erstwhile regularity of writing.]





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4 Responses to Marking UKRI’s scorecard

  1. Geoffrey Bigglesworth says:

    Speaking as someone who worked in the UKRI corporate hub attempting to shape a key strategy of UKRI (strong emphasis on attempting), unfortunately may council staff including at the most senior levels simply resent the existence of UKRI and are determined for it to fail.

    Indeed everything UKRI says or does is, to many in councils, evidence that UKRI has failed. Even ironically when it’s down to the councils own failure to follow through with its own commitment.

    This is so disappointing when there are important to be dealt with in the research sector which require the type of unified response UKRI can effect.

    In my view incentives are poorly shaped executive chairs are judged by what they bring to their council not the whole. To appease councils they had to engineer a lot of overlaps so as to keep councils on side. As a result created inefficiency rather than efficiency.

    My view is the councils need a really big shake up. Get rid of the legacy ‘brands’ (as they like to say). Remove artificial barriers between subject areas. As well as completely restructure the roles of the vast majority of senior council staff.

  2. Kate Jeffery says:

    Thank you for this – there have been several UKRI blunders recently and it needed to be said. And welcome back!

  3. John Womersley says:

    It’s striking to me that David Grant notes that there “remains ambiguity” over whether UKRI is a “light-touch umbrella sitting above nine empowered organisations” or a merger of “nine organisations into one”. The problem is that this ambiguity is always going to be there (and I noted Geoffrey Bigglesworth’s comments with interest). The legislation that created UKRI deliberately fudged this issue to try to satisfy opposing vewpoints and the organisation is forced to try to be both things at once, whioch it clearly cannot. The other problem is that the creators of UKRI imagined BEIS delegating many strategic and planning tasks that were then performed in government to UKRI, but I don’t believe that has really happened – Governments often talk a good talk about delegating strategy but quickly find out that they’d really rather prefer to keep it. So the UKRI centre grew large because it’s staffed up to do a lot of things – but many are things that BEIS is still doing.

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