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Questions for UKRI

Researchers need evidence if the government wants them to believe the bill is no threat to autonomy.

The higher education and research bill has passed its latest hurdle. It received some minor technical amendments in the House of Commons committee stage of its parliamentary journey. The next opportunity for scrutiny will be when it arrives in the House of Lords.

The bill was spared closer forensic examination in the Commons because Conservative MPs who might have rebelled against the government were persuaded to stay loyal. They were persuaded in part because Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, extended a conciliatory hand to his critics. To paraphrase, he said: “I’m a beneficiary of a world-class university system and you can trust me not to screw it up.”

To some extent, that is reassuring to hear. But there are risks to Johnson’s chosen path and he must now say how those risks can be mitigated.

We would encourage the minister and his colleagues to provide clear answers to some questions that our readers have been asking. These questions relate to just one aspect of this complex legislation: the potential loss of autonomy for the research councils and their grantees.

The government says there will be no change to how the research councils function, other than that they will be called research committees.

If that is the case, then we ask the government to confirm that: the chairs and chief executives of the committees and their teams will be able officially to meet MPs and ministers and organise events in parliament; that each individual research council or committee will retain a separate identity and website as it does now, as well as identifiable email domains; and that the new research committees will be able to enter into multi-partner project contracts, as they do now, with other funders, with businesses, with non-governmental organisations and so on. And that they will be able to do so without requiring the UKRI board’s permission.

Those more sympathetic to the government, including Paul Nurse, a former Royal Society president, say that opposition to the bill is “alarmist” and that the critics are missing the main point of the legislation, which is to create a single heavyweight UKRI team to protect the science budget.

The basis for such a claim seems to be John Kingman, a former civil servant and interim chairman of UKRI. There’s no doubt that Kingman will not be pushed around, though that is also because he knows his way around Whitehall and because his last job was running the Treasury for former chancellor George Osborne.

Kingman, however, will soon step down and there is no guarantee that the team replacing him will have anything like his influence on policy and on politics. In the event of weaker leadership at the top, researchers will be the losers as, instead of having seven direct lines of influence into government, they will have just one.

The campaign group Science is Vital has sensibly asked its members to lobby their MPs so that protections for university and research council autonomy are written into the legislation. That has to be the ultimate goal. But in the interim, we await the government’s replies to our questions.

This story also appeared in Research Fortnight