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I don’t want to alarm you, but…

Ehsan Masood looks back at eight eventful years editing Research Fortnight, and risks some predictions for the next decade.

I can still remember my first day at Curtain House, a converted Victorian furniture factory in Shoreditch that has been Research Fortnight’s home since 1994. It was September 2009, and coming back to a newsroom was a welcome relief, as I’d spent much of the previous decade writing and reporting from hotel rooms or conferences in the developing world.

Equally reassuring was the thought that my colleagues and I wouldn’t need to second-guess the authorities when making editorial decisions. For all of the problems inherent in Western democracies, the freedom to think, to speak, to write and to question those whom we elect to govern seemed inviolable.

That thought now seems naïve. Writing from the United States, where I now work as a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I have a ringside seat as the president pours forth a daily torrent of tweets attacking his nation’s news outlets.

Recent developments in the UK also prove, if proof were needed, that journalistic forecasting is a risky business. If asked in 2009, I doubt I would have predicted that the next eight years would include three general elections, one referendum on Scottish independence and another on Brexit, Theresa May as a weak prime minister and Jeremy Corbyn at the helm of a popular and unashamedly left-wing Labour Party. 

So, bear that in mind when reading what follows. Most journalistic forecasts end up being wrong. Even those that are right tend to be so for reasons different to those originally stated.

Big data is the big issue

Some things have not changed all that much in the past eight years. The fallout from the financial crisis dominated politics on both sides of the Atlantic in 2009, and its aftershocks continue to this day.

Other things have changed beyond recognition. Ever-greater computing power has enabled data gathering and manipulation to a degree unimaginable even a decade ago. The possibilities of big data have been a constant theme of research-policy news in the opening years of the 21st century. 

These two issues are more closely linked than they might first appear. As the Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett describes vividly in her book Fool’s Gold, the crash itself was a failure of big data.

The banks and their ranks of mathematics and physics PhDs created models that sought to predict when a borrower would default on his or her loan. Thinking that the models were infallible, most banks dispensed with more traditional due diligence and lent money to large numbers of people who were not able to repay what they owed. When defaults began to kick in, only a very small number of experts were able to spot that there was a problem, and fewer still could fix the crisis that was to follow.

Societies, companies and governments have yet to learn the lesson. There are risks as well as opportunities every time someone hails an Uber ride or lets a bank share his or her credit history with a third-party company such as the credit-rating agency Equifax. The recent hack of Equifax shows that when something does go wrong, society’s reliance on large datasets can have severe consequences.

A decade on, society is much more reliant on black-box models powered by big data than it was in 2007. Just as in 2007, those who know how these models are built, what goes into them and what their limitations might be are thin on the ground. That should worry everyone.

Don’t write off the far right

Considering the fallout of the crisis, those who have written off the UK’s far right could be in for a shock. Both Shoreditch liberals and rural squires have been happy to watch the UK Independence Party implode. But Nigel Farage, and the coalition he assembled and then nurtured for more than two decades, are not about to vanish.

Never forget that Farage’s Brexit campaign, just like Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, was no flash-in-the-pan, but carefully planned. Moreover, the links between the nationalists of Britain and America go back years.

The lack of media coverage and journalistic scrutiny of Farage’s current activities and those of his chief financier Arron Banks should be a cause for concern. Something is clearly in the works, and the people need to find out what it is. Britain’s flirtation with the far-right is not over.

International development is cool again

It hasn’t been all doom and decay. The UK’s continued commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on development aid has been an unexpected boon for researchers. Long may this continue.

The UK has a strong record and a deep legacy in development research. The Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex leads the pack, but other centres for research and practice are not far behind. Moreover, the future is bright. So long as popular schemes such as the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund are allowed to continue, they will catalyse a new generation of researchers and institutions.

This is a far cry from 15 years ago when, in my pre-Research Fortnight life, I was involved in creating a research partnership in which academics from a prestigious UK university would work on problems of under-development, such as a lack of clean water and sanitation. After an exciting orientation week, the project practically ground to a halt. The reason was that the UK academics felt their career structures meant they would get little credit for such work.

That has all changed and, so long as aid spend rises with a growing economy, the aid-research spend will increase as well.

Don’t hold your breath for Universities Inc

“Get me a Google.” If UK innovation policy could be summed up in four words, that would be it. The lack of a new-economy multinational remains a source of embarrassment for the world’s fifth-largest economy, so governments have set about seeing if they could “enable” something.

That is partly why the Technology Strategy Board became Innovate UK; why each budget brings more innovation funding; why Shoreditch was re-christened Tech City by an enterprising young Downing Street policy adviser called Rohan Silva; and why the likes of Google, Amazon and venture funds have set up shop in east London.

This ambition can also be seen in the Higher Education and Research Act passed earlier this year, the most significant reform to British universities and research for a generation. Ministers want the UK to lead the market—or should I say punch above its weight—in privately funded higher education. They are waiting expectantly for an Elsevier-like company to rise up and stalk the world building and running universities.

I suspect that a UK multinational on the scale of a Silicon Valley tech firm is unlikely, for two reasons. The first is that only the United States seems to know how to grow multinationals quickly. In the UK at least, the process of company growth tends to be a lot slower.

The second reason is that when a British company does reach some sort of scale, it tends to get taken over.

In the past decade, for example, two University of Cambridge spinouts, the software company Autonomy and the microprocessor design company ARM, looked as if they might be on the road to multinational status. Hewlett Packard bought the former in 2011, while last year Softbank of Japan acquired the latter for £24 billion.

The gates have been opened for private universities. But ministers shouldn’t be surprised if the first wave of entrants are from abroad.

How I learned to love the REF

The high-level, global issues will occupy future historians. But a news outlet also has to reflect its readers’ everyday concerns, and I’d guess that my tenure saw more stories on research evaluation than any other single topic.

“Why,” I would periodically ask Research Fortnight’s reporters, “is Britain the only developed country that ties so much funding to an excellence framework?” It remains a valid question—and not just when stories of Research Excellence Framework related workplace stress or managerial overreach make the news.

Over the years, the UK’s funding councils have entertained REF-curious visitors from around the world, but none of these international students has opted to follow in the teacher’s footsteps. Sweden, Australia and most recently Italy have all created assessment systems, but all are variations of the REF. None is quite the replica that would have made the funding councils proud.

That said, I have, somewhat reluctantly, made my peace with the idea of a periodic assessment. I still think it can be brutal. It breeds competitive behaviour. It has all but wiped out funded two-star research, rated as being of high quality but only of local relevance.

But the Treasury likes the REF—which counts for a lot in a tight spending climate—because it sees it as a benchmark for quality and the wise use of taxpayer funds. It is unlikely to become any more humane, nor reduce stress among both researchers and managers, but so long as the REF exists, governments will have fewer reasons to cut the science budget.

Scientists know how to fight for their autonomy…

The image of scientists, both inside and outside academia, is that they prefer the lab to the lobby. I have learned otherwise. As the years wore on, the sight of representatives of the many science communities walking in and out of the Victoria Street offices of what is currently known as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was one to behold.

All the major learned societies, many individual subject groups, and research-intensive businesses now have policy teams. Far from being a bunch of ivory-tower boffins, they have made and are continuing to make an impact on the policy process.

First evidence of science’s clout came with the wave of austerity following the 2010 general election. Public-sector bodies were modelling the impact of cuts as high as 40 per cent. Some local authorities have since seen their spending fall by approximately that amount.

But researchers instead emerged with a flat-cash settlement. This was the result of some deft internal lobbying led by the national academies, combined with a popular and vociferous campaign from the grassroots group Science is Vital, which earned its founder Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, a special award from Research Fortnight.

Since then, researchers have continued to benefit from periodic spending increases—quite spectacularly in last November’s spending review, as the chancellor sought to assuage Brexit-related worries and rededicate the government to industrial strategy. The case for R&D has been helped by the Office for National Statistics reclassifying such spending as an investment, when it had previously been classed as a cost. This will make future budget cuts that much harder.

Brexit, of course, represents the biggest test of scientists’ influence. It is a bigger political challenge than the present generation of research leaders has faced at any point in their careers.

But between—to name just a few—UK Research and Innovation chief executive Mark Walport and his head of strategy Rebecca Endean, Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan and his predecessor Paul Nurse, Sarah Main at the Campaign for Science and Engineering, and James Wilsdon at the University of Sheffield, the UK has a science-policy establishment that is both hugely experienced and internationally networked. That makes researchers a third pole in negotiations between London and Brussels that neither side can ignore.

…but vice-chancellors should re-read their Orwell

In contrast to scientists, the nation’s vice-chancellors, and the Russell Group in particular, need to rethink how they do policy and politics.

I never expected to see those who lead universities displacing bankers as the elites we love to hate, but that is what has happened. I’m certain that when historians look back on how this came to pass, they will conclude that some of the damage was self-inflicted.

The core problem for university leaders has been a reluctance to speak up against bad policies when they had the chance to do so.

Back in 2010, for example, the Russell Group could have challenged more forcefully the decision to extract more university funding from students, in the wake of John Browne’s review of university financing in England. Many vice-chancellors were scathing in private, but the public line was not to criticise a policy from which universities benefitted financially.

University leaders had a chance to rethink their timidity when writer Andrew McGettigan spelt out, in these pages and in his book The Great University Gamble, that a large fraction of student loans would never be repaid. This weakened the economic, and especially the moral, case for funding universities by making debtors out of the nation’s children. Moreover, when students become paying customers, telling them how they should learn becomes as viable as lecturing supermarket shoppers on what they can and cannot buy.

But university leaders in England chose to press on and implement a trebling of tuition fees. Their lack of public resistance had two knock-on effects. First, it opened up a gap between university leaders and those they educate. Second, it showed ministers that if vice-chancellors had no stomach for this fight, then further reforms, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework, would probably not be resisted.

I remember sitting in on a briefing to discuss the upcoming TEF with a few heads of institutions, a number of experts in the study of higher education, and representatives of the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Not one of the academics could bring themselves to defend the measure as a reliable proxy for teaching quality. And yet very few were able to voice that scepticism openly.

Ministerial punishment continued when Theresa May’s government pressed ahead with the Higher Education and Research Act, a piece of legislation that, writing for Research Fortnight, the University of Oxford’s chancellor Chris Patten painted as an attack on scholarly and institutional autonomy.

With our sister publication HE, we worked with Science is Vital, students from Imperial College, and with John Krebs and Alison Wolf in the House of Lords to push for amendments as the bill passed through Westminster. But all along the government knew that as long as most scepticism was aired privately, it would get its way. It largely did.

The creation of the Office for Students gives the state a tool with which to beat its scholars and teachers, and, as is becoming evident, it will use it. Combine that with universities finding themselves caught up in the divisions and appetite for elite-bashing that were crystallised and unleashed by the Brexit referendum—evident in the summer’s rows over vice-chancellors’ pay—and the future health of UK higher education looks less assured than at any time since the cuts and hostility towards academia of the Thatcher years.

The present generation of vice-chancellors has discovered the hard way that, in dealing with power, loyalty counts for less than you might think. I am surprised: I would have expected the fate of Boxer in Animal Farm to be etched in the memory of anyone who ventures into any kind of leadership position.

Ehsan Masood was editor of Research Fortnight from September 2009 to August 2017. He is currently a Knight science journalism fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight