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Reform academia for a post-pandemic world

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY-SA 3.0], va Wikimedia Commons

Coronavirus shows research is a public good, not winner-takes-all, says Chi Onwurah

There can rarely have been a time when science was so central to public and private life—leading daily news bulletins and the focus of so many of our conversations.

As Labour’s new shadow minister for science, I have been impressed, but not surprised, by how the UK’s researchers have risen to the challenge of Covid-19. Our world-leading researchers in universities and the private sector are part of international collaborative efforts on vaccines and treatments that will save lives. Others work to make the levels of testing promised by the government a reality.

But these are difficult times for everyone, and science is no exception. There are many sources of anxiety.

Universities face a significant funding problem affecting both tuition fees and research income. Student numbers look set to fall this September, and social distancing measures have made many forms of research impossible to conduct.

As in other areas, the challenges posed to researchers by Covid-19 are exacerbated by longer-standing problems. Back in January, when these things were still possible, I hosted the launch of a report from the University and College Union report on the casualisation of work within UK universities that detailed the impact of the use of fixed-term and teaching-only contracts.

Together, these account for more than a third of the academic workforce. Women and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in this group of workers, and after years of moving from short-term job to short-term job they now face the prospect of hiring freezes. Many are worried they will not be able to find work in the coming years.

Funding for society

Research funding is also a concern, even as it is rising. Labour’s pledge to grow R&D spending to 3 per cent of GDP, part of creating an innovation nation, is needed now more than ever.

The Conservatives have promised to raise the figure to 2.4 per cent. But the virus is reducing GDP forecasts and there is still the looming uncertainty of how Brexit will affect funding and collaborative projects.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) has been suspended to allow researchers to focus on tackling Covid-19. My colleague Emma Hardy, the shadow universities minister, has argued that the REF isn’t fit for purpose. We need to carefully consider how the government supports our world-class research.

Covid-19 has shown that scientific research is a public good. It is driven by public funding and government priorities have a significant role in determining both what and how research is produced.

The REF is central to allocating government funding but it also encourages a cutthroat environment, feeding into league tables and creating incentives to game the system. It can also be used to pressure casualised staff who can still have their research outputs submitted even when a university lets them go after their contract ends.

There needs to be accountability of public money, and a transparent way of assessing research funding. But we need to better facilitate collaboration between researchers, institutions, communities and industry.

This requires strategic direction from the government in terms of setting key societal priorities to allow long-term and innovative research across disciplines, as well as a more equitable funding formula that supports the localised, specialist research undervalued in the REF. Public research funding should also only go to institutions that provide secure work for researchers and close gender and ethnic pay gaps.

Future challenges

This pandemic will not be the last. And there are other challenges—our societies need to change significantly over the next decades to tackle the climate emergency.

This will require government support, public buy-in, and researchers to be focused towards vital goals. I want to see universities and scientific research enabling new industries, particularly in manufacturing, that can respond to public health crises as well as decarbonise the economy.

Academics should be spending their time on research that can inform policy and social change, not filling in grant applications. Any temporary stagnation in funding and support for research risks weakening our response to both the pandemic and the climate crisis.

As is so often said, the UK punches well above its weight in science, and must continue to do so in the new world that the coronavirus is shaping. Just as we need to renew public funding and support for the NHS, we also need to renew funding and support for research as a public good—one that is integral to facing problems such as pandemics and climate change in the long term, as well as enriching our understanding of the world and each other.

Chi Onwurah is the shadow science minister and MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne Central