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Faustian bargain

Image: photocosmos1, via Shutterstock

Boris Johnson’s government promises more money and worse conditions for research, says David Walker

I happened to be sitting round a table with academics in Oxford on the even of the election. The mood was a mixture of despair and celebration. 

Their hearts, along with those of most researchers, deplored a Johnson victory. Their heads, based on existing information and a cool reading of the portents, said: we’re in the money.

Like health spending, research had a front row seat in the Conservative party’s splashy pre-election spending commitments. Unlike health, research hardly figured in the election debate.

Paradoxically, this might mean that promises are more likely to be kept. It could be safer for research to remain outside the political spotlight—provided the existing alliance of Whitehall, research and a small group of Tory ministers and advisers holds.

Science, for example, has been one of the firmest elements in civil service planning for a second Johnson term, with chancellor Sajid Javid and the Treasury onside.

Secret project

Research has been a sort of secret Tory project, with Dominic Cummings’ fingerprints all over it. In his world view, the UK will only prosper on the back of advancing knowledge, which requires strong state backing.

Even Johnson, with his notorious lack of focus, seems to have latched on to increasing R&D spending as a proportion of GDP as the serious correlate of his rhetoric around restoring the UK as a global player.

Whether or not Cummings returns to a substantive role in Downing Street, the government looks set to take more control of research agendas. Parliament may also get involved, in a more haphazard fashion, with a new phalanx of socially conservative Tory MPs unlikely to show much love for sociological or other critical research.

Bigger budgets will bring restructuring. The commitment to create a UK version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will translate as revamping UK Research and Innovation.

Another review of arm’s length bodies is also coming, with consequences for the research councils. How will additional funds for challenge-related research be channelled through the research council structure?

The Department of International Development’s big research spend is in jeopardy, while health research could grow, given the salience of the NHS.

As for Research England and the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, being under the radar has been useful. But over the coming months, depending on ministerial appointments, the emphasis on research delivering impact and utility will surely grow.

Choppy seas

Research pundits sometimes talk as if all that mattered were the R&D target and specific science spending commitments. Many of them, and perhaps many academics, might agree that if resources are flowing, they will accept Cummings.

But to make an obvious point, science is delivered by companies and by universities, and both sail on choppy seas.

The pound may have surged on Johnson’s victory, but economic growth has stalled, and future prospects depend on Brexit deals. It’s difficult to see when corporate R&D spending will get anywhere near the levels needed to reach the 2.4 per cent target.

The flow of people and research grants will also depend on the shape of the Brexit deal. And the new Tory party is likely to take a harder line on this than ever. Continuing participation in European research networks could be challenged.

Big battles lie ahead about student funding and university autonomy. Cummings, like many scientists, favours detaching research from higher education and putting it into specialist institutions.

It won’t be long before the Daily Mail maps the Labour vote onto the location of higher education institutions and starts painting universities as hotbeds of diversity and liberalism needing to be controlled and cut down.

Research is international and collaborative. Universities could take Johnson’s global Britain rhetoric at face value, or they could fear that cabinet ministers such as home secretary Priti Patel and foreign secretary Dominic Raab will be empowered by the election result to pursue a vision of Singapore-on-Thames, where only capital enjoys free movement and the criteria for migration exclude most scientists.

Johnson’s cabinet, and Tory MPs, won’t be united for long. Science and university lobbyists will get scope to exploit divisions over, for example, migration and the place of knowledge and intellectual property in trade deals.

Science starts off on the front foot, apparently a favoured sector, considered essential to UK global influence and economic success. But its institutions and its people stand to be changed and diminished by the Tory triumph.

David Walker is a former council member of the Economic and Social Research Council