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Time for UKRI to show its hand

One year after its launch, UK Research and Innovation seems to be doing a decent job—but it can be hard to tell, says James Wilsdon.

A first wedding anniversary is traditionally marked with a gift of paper. Following the forced marriage of public bodies that gave rise to the UK’s new umbrella funding body UK Research and Innovation in April 2018, we were expecting by now to have a fat ream to play with.

UKRI’s strategic prospectus, published a few weeks in, signalled the start of a process that, by now, was intended to have delivered a “detailed research and innovation strategy”, including plans for talent attraction, ethics, open access, public engagement, and much more.

UKRI has indeed been busy across all of these fronts. But the overarching strategy won’t now materialise until June, accompanied by a suite of three-year delivery plans for its nine constituent parts.

It’s not really fair to blame UKRI for any slippage. With the entire machinery of government paralysed by Brexit, it’s a credit to Mark Walport and UKRI’s 7,000 staff that the complex merger of nine organisations into one has proceeded relatively smoothly. They’ve kept the funding system ticking over, while introducing multiple new schemes—notably the Future Leaders Fellowships, two further waves of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, and the Strategic Priorities Fund.

UKRI’s leadership has also been pivotal in maintaining political support for the target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D. This is no mean feat, given current uncertainties, although the proof of the pudding will be in the autumn spending review.

More to come

The sense that there is more to come makes it difficult to offer a rounded assessment of UKRI’s first year. Talking over recent days to a handful of well-placed insiders, I received a mixed set of responses.

On the positive side, there’s widespread enthusiasm for the Futures Leaders Fellowships, the Strength in Places agenda, and the potential of the Strategic Priorities Fund. UKRI’s proactive stance on equality, diversity and inclusion is also welcome, as is its review of bullying and harassment.

Plan S is more divisive, but many are glad to see UKRI championing open-access publishing and open research.

Senior insiders are upbeat about the June strategy—one described it as “the most detailed look at the UK’s research and innovation system to date”. The same goes for the catalytic effects of the 2.4 per cent target—“it’s the first spending review in a while, where no one is preparing grim scenarios for budget reductions”.

Getting to know you

The different parts of UKRI are slowly learning to collaborate more effectively. In late March, UKRI’s main board met with the councils of its nine bodies for the first time, with a view to fostering more dialogue across these structures.

At the executive level, new alliances are also being forged. As one executive chair told me: “I keep hearing that we’re fighting like cats in a sack. This is nonsense! We’re working together better than ever before. We’re even socialising together. Yes we have robust discussions, but we’re also cooperating on a scale that is unprecedented.”

The most frequent complaints are around centralised decision-making and a lack of transparency. Below the level of the executive chairs, even senior insiders admitted they had “literally no idea” what would be in the June strategic plan.

“There’s a serious communication problem,” one told me. “I don’t know if this is because there’s nothing to communicate, or because they don’t want to. My biggest concern is that there’s nothing there. It’s like Theresa May and Brexit—there’s a vacuum at the top.”

One university leader complained, “They are consumed by Brexit. And, they are being battered by Treasury, which wants the new money spent yesterday. So you end up with crazy deadlines, and a real lack of transparency about how priorities are being set.”

More than one person contrasted UKRI with the more open and consultative approach adopted by philanthropic funder the Wellcome Trust.

Executive churn

A further concern is over the rapid turnover of senior staff. The imminent departure of Rebecca Endean, UKRI’s strategy director, is seen as a particular blow, given her pivotal contribution to the design and establishment of UKRI.

“Rebecca will be a serious loss,” says one person. “She is the best person ever in a crisis. But one year in, we probably need to move beyond crisis management. And I’m sure Mark will appoint someone he has confidence in, and the system will rearrange itself around that.” Endean’s replacement will be crucial; interviews are taking place this month.

While she is leaving for positive reasons—for a long-planned year travelling with her partner—last week’s announcement that Ian Kenyon, chief finance officer, is quitting after just over a year came as more of a surprise.

One insider admitted: “That came out of the blue—and I don’t know why. But a year in and about to be entering a spending review is not the time you would expect to lose your chief finance officer.”

Among the executive chairs, Andrew Thompson has signalled that he will leave the Arts and Humanities Research Council before the end of 2019, to take on a new role at The University of Oxford.

Some churn is inevitable, but after a recruitment-heavy start-up phase in 2017 and 2018, one might have expected UKRI’s top team to bed in for a while. As it is, it looks like Saxton Bampfylde, Odgers Berndtson and other executive headhunters will continue to hoover up significant amounts of UKRI funding in 2019.

Balancing act

At a strategic level, those outside UKRI remain most exercised by questions of balance across the funding system. Support for new funding streams is tempered by real concern about the systemic and longer-term effects of the shift towards challenge funds, and the need to monitor how the mix of funding alters over time (by council, by discipline, by region and other vectors).

As described by the Campaign for Science and Engineering in a recent briefing, the balance of funding across UKRI is changing. It can be hard to track what is happening to core council budgets, relative to the UKRI whole. There are related concerns about a decline in the quality-related block grant as a proportion of the budget, well articulated by the Russell Group of larger, research-intensive universities.

The entire picture is further complicated by Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education, which, if it leads to a cut in undergraduate tuition fees, may drastically reduce the scope for cross-subsidy from teaching to research, and by uncertainties over the future of EU funding.

There’s a real appetite for UKRI to provide greater clarity, and deliver on its commitment to an open, evidence-informed debate over the balance of funding across the system. A forthcoming report on this issue by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee may increase the pressure on UKRI to show its hand, but insiders admit that its June strategy won’t resolve any of these questions. “The strategic plan is focused on where we are now—it’s the spending review in the autumn that will set the future direction of travel.”

What lies ahead

So, as UKRI’s first year ends, we know pretty much what lies ahead. Assuming we sidestep a no-deal Brexit and a general election, we’ll see UKRI’s strategic plan before the end of June, followed by a spending review and budget in the autumn. These will need to reflect serious progress towards the 2.4 per cent target.

We should also know far more about the Strategic Priorities Fund, wave three (and four?) of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the future of the Global Challenges Research Fund, and the wider shape of our international research strategy, including Adrian Smith’s review of future collaborative funding.

Less clear, to me at least, is how far and fast UKRI’s culture will evolve. Can it become more open, more conversational and more visibly supportive of balance and diversity?

Can it share more of its data on the funding system, and encourage more independent evaluation of its, and the UK’s, progress? And can ordinary members of the research community start to feel, if not love, then at least some affection for and loyalty towards UKRI, as many felt in the past for ‘their’ research council?

For that to happen, UKRI needs to show that, despite its size, it genuinely wants to listen as well as to support and enable people, in whatever discipline, at whatever career stage, to do great work.

James Wilsdon (@jameswilsdon) is professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield.