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Bigger science budget means room to experiment

Loosening the purse strings would challenge funders to do things differently, says Graeme Reid

For years the UK has invested less in R&D than other advanced economies. This has been tolerated because researchers have converted modest funding into outstanding performance, which has come through a relentless focus on excellence.

In 2004, Tony Blair’s Labour government published a 10-year framework for science and innovation to support “world-class research at the UK’s strongest centres of excellence”. More than 15 years on, Chris Skidmore, then science minister, said: “We make no apologies for investing in research excellence, and in our world-leading research capabilities”.

That uncompromising persistence has paid off. For more than a decade, the UK has led the G7 group of major economies in citation impact. Overseas firms flock to the UK to invest in R&D alongside universities that sit near the top of global league tables. Many of the world’s most talented researchers choose careers in the UK.

But proven funding methods were used, and proven performers won much of the money. There was little appetite for modifying the balance between disciplines, changing the regional distribution or experimenting with funding models. There were some exceptions, but in general tight budgets meant concentrating on established funding models in top universities and institutes.

Shifting ground

That position is changing. Speaking after his election victory, Boris Johnson promised “colossal new investments in science”. If his government delivers on its promise, overall R&D investment in the UK will rise from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP within the next decade.

This will include several billion pounds more per annum in public funding alone. Wednesday’s budget may reveal more of the government’s intentions.

Increased resources will allow government funders to expand their roles. This will bring big opportunities for the research councils, which for decades have coped with scarce funding and an abundance of excellent but unaffordable research proposals.

Continued support for excellent research is non-negotiable. But there would also be room to experiment.

The government wants a new body modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to invest in high-risk, high-reward research and technology. The US government also created an energy ARPA and a homeland security ARPA. So far, neither has replicated the success of the defence agency. We shall no doubt learn many things from a UK version.

Questions of place

The impact of R&D on regional economies is uneven and not well understood. Successes include Cardiff’s compound-semiconductor industry, Cambridge’s booming knowledge economy and Strathclyde’s innovation district. But many outstanding universities still have nearby communities that are excluded from the knowledge economy.

The prime minister has promised to address long-standing regional disparities. Throwing research grants at left-behind regions will not automatically pay off, but there must be ways to build effective R&D capacity in more parts of the UK.

This will need funding based on a better understanding of the role of civic leadership, the distinctive advantages of individual places and how research can stimulate further investment. I advised the Welsh government to raise universities’ block grants in proportion to their success at winning extra competitive funding. Would that approach work elsewhere?

Government has reformed immigration policy to attract overseas researchers in support of the 2.4 per cent agenda. But are we making the most of researchers already in the UK?

It is difficult for researchers to move between academia, business and government midcareer. Could a better understanding of barriers to mobility allow funding to support more agile careers? That would make it easier to assemble a critical mass of researchers in rapidly emerging areas.

Greater agility is also needed to grasp opportunities for international collaboration. Specific agility funding, free from the administrative constraints of research grants, could support spontaneous international collaborations that do not fit easily into UK funding rules.

Research funders guarding tight budgets may hesitate to support cross-disciplinary fields. For example, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee found a “lack of co-ordinated strategic thinking around R&D in forensic science”. Larger budgets should allow more support for research spanning conventional disciplines, without undermining those disciplines in the process.

These changes will mean more work for funding agencies. Let’s hope the government recognises the need for talented managers and administrators as well as talented researchers.

Graeme Reid is chair of science and research policy at University College London

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight