In May 2018 the newly formed funding ‘supra-body’ UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) launched its Strategic Prospectus. As of January this year, all seven research councils now come under the umbrella of UKRI (the Arts and Humanities Research Council; the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; the Economic and Social Research Council; the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; the Medical Research Council; the Natural Environment Research Council; and the Science and Technologies Facilities Council). UKRI also contains two new bodies: Research England and Innovate UK. UKRI will command some six billion pounds worth of funding, and will continue a dual-funding system, divided as before into direct (hypothecated) research funding, and indirect (non-hypothecated) QR (block grant funding distributed on the basis of the REF). Research England will take over from HEFCE in allocating QR in England, while Innovate UK will be responsible for promoting innovation between the business and research communities.
The Strategic Prospectus is an important document, laying out for the first time the direction of travel for UKRI, and its aspirations to ‘push the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding’, ‘deliver economic impact’, and ‘create social and cultural impact’, with the aim of building on the UK’s significant global research achievements as a world-leading, knowledge-driven economy, in line with the government’s projected increased spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show the current spend is 1.67%).
Pushing the frontiers of knowledge
Throughout the Prospectus there is a clear commitment to the Haldane Principle; that is, the principle of autonomous decision-making through expert, peer review in the determination of funding allocations. In real terms, this means that while UKRI will work closely with government to set strategic priorities, it will also work closely with the research councils themselves, with their peer review colleges, and with the Office for Students, to allocate funding. UKRI also states that knowledge growth will be achieved by ensuring diversity in all levels of collaboration, by encouraging innovation and supporting risk, and by devising new data sets and metrics to ensure integrity and rigour in the pursuit of evidence-based research and policy making.
Delivering economic impact
UKRI is committed to implementing strategies to achieve a government target of 2.4% GDP spend on R&D by 2027. At the same time as affirming the Haldane Principle, UKRI will pursue its goals in line with the strategic priorities of the government to deliver economic growth.
Creating social and cultural impact
UKRI’s Strategic Prospectus makes a clear commitment to driving research and innovation in the service of the public good, through facilitating collaboration and supporting public engagement programmes that will ‘build trust and appreciation of public knowledge’.
The Prospectus contains a detailed appendix outlining the organisational structure of UKRI, but is less clear on the details of the allocations of funding pots to its constituent bodies in light of its view that ‘Real-world problems are inherently multi- and interdisciplinary, and we need to be able to act quickly to respond to new opportunities and initiatives by collaborating across disciplinary, organisational and national boundaries.’ A commitment is clearly stated to ‘the autonomy of individual councils when they are working within their subject domains’, but so too is the aim to ‘facilitate and encourage collective working to support cross-cutting opportunities’. The document does not provide detail on how this might translate into intra-council funding allocations.
UKRI proposes a number of cross-council research funds, chief among which is the Strategic Priorities Fund. This is a common fund which will drive multi- and interdisciplinary research ‘in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home.’ A further major initiative is the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is designed to align business investment with industrial and technological research and development, and in particular to encourage the development of transformative technologies in response to the 4 ‘Grand Challenges’ identified in the government’s industrial policy (viz. the development of AI; clean growth; encouraging mobility; and addressing the needs of an ageing population). The Strength in Places Fund is designed to challenge existing geographical concentrations of research funding by supporting ‘collaborative proposals from consortia of publicly-funded research organisations, businesses and local civic leaders’. Finally, both the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund address global issues that require complex solutions to help developing countries and communities, as well as agile emergency response funding.
UKRI proposes to deliver its aims in a number of ways, the headlines of which are: 1) building capacity in talent and leadership (notably through its recently announced Future Leaders Fellowship programme, which provides seven years’ of funding for research posts); 2) creating a ‘trusted and diverse system’ (to be ensured by an external advisory group); 3) ensuring openness and transparency (through prioritising open access & open data ‘for every interested citizen’, and by appointing an Open Data Task Force); and 4) creating a research and innovation culture based on prioritising norms, producing replicable research, encouraging honest and verifiable conduct, and by measuring public good through the creation of new, comprehensive metrics systems and methodologies.
In sum, UKRI’s Strategic Prospectus is clearly designed as an aspirational statement, and as such it sets the tone for future strategic planning while leaving much detail to be elaborated. Points to be clarified include: specifics about the Strategic Priorities Fund and its themes; details of the funding allocations to the individual councils; details of staffing and organisational structure; the balance between the arts and the sciences (the document is noticeably STEM-heavy); more indications of how a more traditional sole researcher model working in a single discipline will fare in a strategic environment that appears to be weighted towards collaboration and interdisciplinarity; and how the fine line between working closely with civil service in shaping policy and observing the spirit of the Haldane Principle will be managed. UKRI’s promise to create comprehensive data collection methodologies and datasets that map the entire UK research and innovation landscape, including infrastructure, will also be a point of interest. Lastly, UKRI addresses the uncertainty caused by the UK’s forthcoming departure from the EU, firmly stating its commitment to forge successor agreements to replace Horizon2020 funding as well as seeking ongoing global partnerships.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SearchHigher or Warwick Employment Group.