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Red tape alert

Adam Tickell and Duncan Wingham discuss how to tackle unnecessary research bureaucracy

On 22 March, science minister Amanda Solloway launched an independent review of research bureaucracy, to be led by Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. Here, Tickell discusses the drive to remove red tape with Duncan Wingham, executive chair of the Natural Environment Research Council. 

Adam Tickell: Striking the right balance in the management of research funding is difficult. There is much at stake—from protecting the public purse and the effective functioning of our research institutions to enabling our researchers to fulfil their potential. We all recognise those fundamentals. There is also wide recognition that we are not getting the balance right and have accumulated some processes and controls that are not really needed.

Unnecessary bureaucracy has been on the government’s radar for a while now; the independent review of research bureaucracy was announced by the prime minister in January 2020 and was highlighted as a key theme in last July’s R&D Roadmap. I am delighted to have been asked to lead the review and am clear on the positive impact this work can have across the UK’s research community. I am confident that we will bring real change, not least because there is much to build on. For example, our colleagues at UK Research and Innovation are leading through their Simpler and Better Funding programme, led by Duncan Wingham.

Duncan Wingham: The Simpler and Better Funding programme at UKRI is contributing to our common aim, together with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to free up the time of researchers and innovators to do more of what they do best. We are making our funding processes as user-friendly as possible for applicants, peer reviewers and awardees, as well as those who work with them. We believe these changes will make life easier for colleagues across the sector, further enhancing the excellence of our research and innovation communities.

AT: It is great to see the progress already being made. I am going into the review with an open mind, ready to really listen to build a complete picture of the issues. Of course, we know some of these already. For example, it can be hard to find information about possible funding sources to support a research proposal, while forms can be overly complicated and the same data can be requested multiple times in different formats for different funders—or worse still, for the same funder.

DW: Yes, we recognise those examples. Of course, it’s often the processes themselves that drive bureaucratic demands as much as the forms and papers. Where possible, the simplification and harmonisation of research councils’ schemes will make things easier, both for multidisciplinary working and for the activity of universities’ research offices.

AT: Fundamentally, the review will be about making life easier for researchers and their teams. To achieve this, we will look at the administrative systems and processes that run throughout the research system. This will span securing and managing funding, overall reporting and assurances, and evaluation of research projects. It will include the interaction between individual researchers and research teams with the internal bureaucracy of their host institutions. These are our starting points, but this is really about hearing from colleagues across the sector.

Initially we are planning a number of roundtables involving representation from across the system—including research funders, institutional leads and research teams. By identifying what is getting in the way of research, and researchers’ wider academic responsibilities, we will define what’s really in scope. Clearly, we have to balance reducing unnecessary bureaucracy with maintaining accountability and transparency—we must safeguard good governance and the fair distribution of funding. In many ways, this will be a classic cost-benefit exercise.

DW: As public funders, we need to demonstrate the impact and value for the nation of research funding, to ensure we fund excellence in all its forms and to show we meet parliament’s expectations in the disbursement of public funds. To achieve all those things, some bureaucracy is essential.

I fully agree that taking a system-wide approach is crucial. This is the approach we are taking with the review of the Transparent Approach to Costing, which we are undertaking with the Office for Students and higher education funding bodies for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The review will improve our understanding of the costs and benefits of the TRAC methodology. This will allow us to make more informed decisions and be more efficient and effective as funders.

AT: By adopting that holistic approach, we will identify the drivers and impacts of the growth in bureaucracy. We will also avoid unintended consequences, where we simply move burdens from one part of the system to another. Equally important will be finding and championing exemplars of best practice. We should look for those in different places—from research teams, departments and research offices through to funders.

DW: Of course, those examples of best practice may be further afield. Through UKRI’s international network, we can find out where different systems and processes are working effectively. It is important to remember the global context in which our systems will need to continue to modernise and evolve if we are to remain world-leading. That way, we ensure public investment in R&D goes further, and that is an area that UKRI is already a step ahead on through the development of the new UKRI Funding Service and its work across the whole Simpler and Better Funding programme.

AT: This is a collective effort and an important, shared opportunity to improve the research environment for the benefit of those working within it now and in the future. By improving the quality of researchers’ working lives, we will continue to attract and retain a diverse, nationally and internationally connected research community. This will benefit the productivity of our research system, our institutions and our long-term economic growth.

The review team welcomes views on where there is unnecessary bureaucracy in the research system, examples of best practice and the best ways to engage across the research community. The team can be contacted at bureaucracyreview@beis.gov.uk.