Shifting Sands Part 1

UK Research and Innovation

The UK research landscape is changing. Uncertainties over the future of the UK’s participation in European Framework funding are being compounded by changes to internal UK funding structures, namely the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This new strategy will draw together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and Research England (the quality assessed block funding component of HEFCE) into a single umbrella body – UKRI.

UKRI – Purpose

The idea behind the creation of the UKRI falls out of the Nurse Review. In summary the review advocated for greater cross-cutting research that could answer challenges that required interdisciplinary research approaches, to ensure that the UK research system maintained its leading position upon the world research stage. To achieve this, the review argued that the seven Research Councils should be brought together under an umbrella organisation (Research UK) which would also allow improved communication and strategy development by communicating as a single voice. It was also argued that Research UK should engage closely with Innovate UK and HEFCE.

The idea has since evolved (see “Case for the creation of UK Research and Innovation” and “Setting up UK Research & Innovation”) and the umbrella body (UKRI) will now consist of 7 Research Councils, Research England, and Innovate UK. In addition, the following UKRI Priorities have been developed:

  • a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current funding bodies, such as multi-and inter-disciplinary research;
  • a strengthened, unified voice for the UK’s research and innovation system;
  • improved collaboration between the research base, business and the commercialization of discoveries;
  • better mechanisms for the sharing of expertise and best practice – for example, around management of major projects and large capital investment;
  • more time for research leaders to focus on strategic leadership through the centralisation of back and middle office functions; and
  • improved quality of evidence on the UK’s research and innovation landscape through the pooling of multiple datasets.

When will it happen – timescales?

The process is happening now. Sir Mark Walport was appointed Chief Executive at the beginning of February. He is a key individual in the UK research landscape and was formerly in charge of the Wellcome Trust. He is currently Chief Scientific Advisor to the government.

The legislation for the process is currently with Parliament and the 1st April 2018 is being floated as the start date for the new UKRI. This would fit nicely with the end of Walport’s position as Scientific Advisor.

What does it mean for Industry and Academia?

In some ways things won’t change in the very near future. There will still be 7 research councils who will operate in much the same way as they do at present. That being said, expect a greater emphasis towards interdisciplinary (and likely intersectoral) research; especially projects which would have “slipped through the cracks” under the existing regime. After all, enabling cross-cutting research is one of the key drivers behind the formation of UKRI and indeed there will be a Global Challenges Research fund specifically targeted towards cross disciplinary research (see below for further details).

The budgets for UKRI have been announced and are reflecting this shift. An additional multidisciplinary pot of money is going to be created. This will be top-sliced from the budgets of all seven research councils from 2018 onwards. The precise budget of this is still to be agreed, but it is expected to be between three and five per cent of the total, generating a pot of between £100m and £150m.

UKRI will also manage cross-disciplinary funds, including the unallocated portion of the £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (growing fast from nothing at the moment to £38m in 2017/18, £122m in 18/19, £216 in 19/20 and £315m in 20/21). This is because the government is keen to use research funding to improve the UK’s competitiveness. They state that “public money can work alongside private sector investment to make the UK a world leader” in the following areas:

  • Bioscience and biotechnology
  • Leading edge healthcare and medicine
  • Manufacturing processes and materials of the future
  • Smart, flexible and clean energy technologies
  • Quantum technologies
  • Robotics and artificial intelligence
  • Satellites and space technologies
  • Transformative digital technologies

In addition, there are two more areas: Integrated & Sustainable Cities, and Technologies for the Creative Industries, for which the government believe there are “significant global opportunities building on UK strengths.”

It should also be noted that there will be an investment of £4.7 billion of “new money” into UK research and development between now and 2020-2021. Details of where this will be spent, such as the split between the Research Councils and Innovate UK, are yet to be seen.

The implementation of this new strategy has not been without controversy. Particular concerns have been raised about councils’ autonomy and the protection of the Haldane Principle (where decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review, rather than Government) however all signals at present are that this is central to the UK research approach and will not be subject to change. Despite these assurances from Government, there are ongoing conflicts over the future of the Research Council’s Royal Charters (into which their autonomy is codified) which they will lose as part of the bill to introduce UKRI – currently working its way through the House of Lords.

In addition, the advantage of the present system is that the science Minister gets advice from people who understand project funding and from people who understand block grant funding. He gets multiple sets of advice. There is a fear that once everything is integrated into Research UK it will have to provide one piece of advice, and it becomes trickier to tease out all the issues around the balance between the two sides.

Finally, the Government’s aim in bringing Innovate UK into the new UKRI organisation is to develop a more joined-up working relationship between research and innovation, in order to ensure that research with economic potential is commercialised.  However, this has raised concerns that there is a risk that research priorities and funding will be excessively influenced by the proximity of Innovate UK and the research councils and Research England within UKRI, which will result in research without immediately apparent commercial exploitation not being given sufficient emphasis.

What can you do to prepare?

The familiarpexels-photo-212286.jpeg world of the UK research Councils and Horizon 2020 funding is rapidly changing and in order for academics to be in a position to respond you need to get ahead of the game. Plan out how your research can fit into the UKRI priorities and the new ‘world leader’ areas. Develop a detailed research road map of where you see your research going in the next 2, 5 and 10 years. As part of this strategy it is worth identifying and building relationships with key beneficiaries and stakeholders in your sector, as well as developing initial exploitation plans to maximise the impact and benefit of your research.

It is also worth noting that the first calls for the Global Challenges research fund are already open and can be a useful resource to visualise the scope of the projects which are going to be funded.