On UK Research and Innovation’s new start

The UK’s new science funding agency – UK Research and Innovation – is now 2 years old, and its founding Chief Executive, Sir Mark Walport, has recently stepped down, being replaced by the plant scientist Dame Ottoline Leyser. This is a short piece I wrote on the occasion of the transition, for the trade magazine “Research Professional”.

The question UKRI faces, as the custodian of the UK’s public research sector, is this: is the shape of the UK’s research sector right for the problems the country faces? There is much that is excellent about the sector, but it has three big problems: it is too small for the scale of the economy, it is too regionally concentrated, and it is underweight in translational research.

The government is committed to addressing the problem of scale through a very ambitious spending uplift. But where, and on what, should the new money be spent? As Tom Forth and I have recently argued (in our NESTA report, “The Missing £4 billion”), the concentration of research spending in those parts of the country that are already the most prosperous is politically and economically unsustainable. New institutions need to be set up to support the lagging economies outside London and the South East.

International comparisons show that the UK has tended to neglect applied and translational research. To meet the government’s target for R&D intensity, public investment must be designed to induce the private sector to spend more on R&D too.

Yet, paradoxically, many feel that UKRI hasn’t effectively supported the most basic, undirected research well enough either, in contrast to the high reputation of the European Research Council, whose important role in the UK system is now under threat. The role of the new ARPA-like agency planned by the government to sit outside UKRI is another complication. In my view, UKRI should be flexible enough to accommodate such an organisation, and the fact that it is not perceived to be so is a problem.

The new CEO’s hands are not tied by an existing well-developed strategy for UKRI, and more work remains to create a sense of common purpose amongst UKRI’s nine constituent organisations. But Dame Ottoline has a well-earned reputation as a serious thinker about the place of research in the economy and society, not afraid to be critical of some aspects of the existing research system and its cultures and behaviours. She will have the support and good wishes of the research community at a crucial time for UKRI.

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