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What happened at RPN Live 2024?

RPN Live: Harriet Swain rounds up a busy day of debate at the Royal Society

The first time Research Professional News held a live, in-person event, it was closely followed by a pandemic.

The second RPN Live in-person event, held at the Royal Society in London yesterday and attended by research managers, sector leaders, publishers and politicians, aimed to tackle more day-to-day challenges.

The event brought us the latest news on appointments to two senior research sector posts, and we heard about imminent announcements related to the Research Excellence Framework. It featured talk of likely widespread changes to research assessment under a change of government, and it even contemplated the possibility that the REF could be scrapped altogether.

Discussions were held about how research can contribute to economic growth and develop a wider and more diverse talent pipeline. And the day ended with tales of bribery, fraud and possible Russian disinformation.

Ministerial message

The event kicked off with science minister Andrew Griffith talking about how the UK’s openness to the world had contributed to the success of its universities, which was an interesting point to stress considering the effect of recent immigration policies on the number of international students.

Griffith reaffirmed the government’s commitment to making the UK a science superpower, saying that public spending on research and development will rise to £20 billion from 1 April and that the government has kept its promise on this even after having to spend billions on the pandemic and then on energy subsidies following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Remember when public spending on research was going to reach £22bn by 2024-25? Still, the sentiment was reassuring.

He also talked a lot about business and how important it would be for universities to partner with the private sector.

Then he made an announcement. The search for the next chief executive of UK Research and Innovation and for the next head of Innovate UK, one of its constituent councils, would start within days, he said, indicating that there was a high chance the successful candidates would come from business.

“I want true diversity, meaning the widest range of backgrounds and experiences,” he said. While the new leaders of UKRI and Innovate UK could well be from inside the sector, they could also be “from the top of the business world or someone who has come from a professional services organisation”.

RPN live 2024 Andrew Griffith speaking serious

Griffith’s predecessor George Freeman has also talked about the need for a “more businesslike, more focused, accountable, output-orientated delivery culture” at UKRI when Ottoline Leyser, a plant biologist from the University of Cambridge, steps down as chief executive at the end of her current term in June 2025.

Speaking later in the day, Benjamin Reid, director of technology and innovation at the Confederation of British Industry, suggested that the government wanted to make the UKRI appointment before the general election—after which, if the polls are correct, it will be out of power.

Whether this timescale is realistic, and how easy—or welcome—it would be to bring about the culture change Griffith suggests, is debatable.

Meanwhile, Griffith professed that ministers were “properly excited” by the recent review of research bureaucracy carried out by Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham—something the minister would presumably only say in certain kinds of company.

Donelan scandal

To his credit, Griffith agreed to spend half an hour responding to questions. Naturally, the first one concerned the £15,000 that taxpayers have had to spend after science secretary Michelle Donelan falsely suggested in a tweet that a member of a UKRI equality panel supported extremism.

Griffith did respond, but rather vaguely. He said ministers “have to intercede” from time to time but “we must not use intemperate language” and it is now time to move on.

As for whether he agreed with Donelan’s comments to the House of Lords science and technology committee earlier this week that ministers did not think there was a funding crisis in higher education, he suggested the word ‘crisis’ was “overused” and said he preferred to talk about “really intense macro change” affecting many countries.

This also offers opportunities, he suggested, recounting a recent trip he had made to Saudi Arabia and suggesting that “as we see the geopolitics shifting, we may also see different patterns of where doctorates, universities, undergraduates—where revenue sources—are coming from”.

More revenue, he suggested, could come from spinouts, growth and working with other government departments.

Growth and contraction

The valuable and diverse contribution universities can make to growth through working with businesses, as well as their potential for improving productivity, was discussed in the next panel session of the day.

But this was followed by a warning from Jessica Corner, executive chair of Research England, who was less optimistic than Griffith about university finances.

She said that financial pressures could mean the UK’s research sector will contract over the coming years.

Falling numbers of international students and therefore a drop in income from their fees, which subsidise UK universities, mean “there will be less to cover research”, she suggested, pointing out that universities contribute around £5bn a year to research, making them one of the biggest research funders.

RPN live jessica corner talking

She said she was most worried about “a kind of eroding effect on our total capability and capacity to do research”, which is something that needs to be kept under review.

Yet a contraction in scale does not necessarily mean a contraction in what research can deliver, she suggested, with developments such as artificial intelligence offering “huge” possibilities to boost research productivity.

REF talk

Corner said there would be announcements next week on the process for the next REF, including on open access, followed later by recruitment for panel chairs and recruitment of the panels themselves towards the summer, although dates have not yet been finalised.

She was confident that the REF would still happen in 2029, but this was questioned in a later panel by Stephanie Smith, deputy director of policy at the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, who said she was “starting to get worried” about timelines. Corner did not push back on this.

Concerns were also expressed about costs, which have escalated for each REF. There was a recognition that the next REF will need to incorporate changes—and that changes cost money.

It is something that bothers shadow science minister Chi Onwurah. Asked directly whether Labour had changed its 2019 manifesto position that the REF should be scrapped, she said: “I have a position on research excellence, which is that we have it and need to maintain it. I am concerned about some of the bureaucracy associated with the REF.”

Onwurah added that Labour wanted to “accelerate positive change within the research system”. She said the party was studying in detail recommendations from the Future Research Assessment Programme and would respond to that over time. The Frap review came out in June 2023.

Asked by RPN editor Sarah Richardson (main picture) whether this meant she was stopping short of endorsing the REF in its current form, Onwurah agreed.

RPN live 2024 Chi Onwurah speaking

Like Griffith, Onwurah is keen on cutting red tape more widely and said that a Labour government would introduce a system of “earned trust” in place of repetitive paperwork and endless box-ticking. She is looking closely at what can be learned from meta-science—the science of doing science.

Large bribes

The day ended with a discussion around research integrity and details of the eye-watering sums now being offered in bribes to editors.

Nandita Quaderi, editor-in-chief of Web of Science and senior vice-president at Clarivate, said that while there has always been a certain degree of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism among individual bad actors or small groups of people, over the past few years there has been a massive increase in both volume and sophistication. She blamed perverse incentives that put the quantity of research outputs above the quality.

Sabina Alam, director of publishing ethics and integrity at Taylor and Francis, said editors were being offered bribes of around $70,000 to $100,000 (£55,000 to £78,000) to publish articles, and artificial intelligence-generated content was making it harder than ever to detect problems.

RPN live 2024 final panel

Asked whether fraudsters could be motivated by more sinister reasons than money, she said that one type of potential misconduct seen in the social sciences involved “floating authors”, where the same names cropped up on papers on completely different topics and the authors could not be tracked down. One theory publishers were discussing—although so far without evidence—was that it could be to do with efforts to destabilise or delegitimise Western publishers.

It is a reminder that whatever problems research teams face, geopolitics is rarely far away.

Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Clarivate. This is an extract from our daily 8am Playbook briefing published on 15 March, available to subscribers as a premium service. For more information, email sales@researchresearch.com.