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Map reading, or how to bet the farm

Today’s Roadmap for R&D raises far more questions than it answers, finds Martin McQuillan

The UK Research and Development Roadmap, published today by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is the substance that lies behind the speech given by the prime minister in Dudley yesterday, in which he vowed to make Britain a “science superpower”. If someone showed him the data for awards from European Union research schemes, he would know that the UK is already a science superpower, but hey ho.

He was giving his speech on the last day when the UK could have asked for an extension of the transition period from the EU—it has not done so despite the economic uncertainty wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, the prime minister’s speech in Dudley “doubled down” on Brexit and “levelling up” the UK, in effect betting the farm on a strategy of investing in infrastructure to offset the combined economic shock of a potential no-deal Brexit and the coronavirus.

Earlier today, Research Professional News published a view from science minister Amanda Solloway in which she emphasises the two aspects of the roadmap she has a keen personal interest in: changing the culture of research to support individuals; and addressing regional inequality by spreading investment in science and innovation across the country. She says: “This is a moment to improve on what went before, and the R&D roadmap is the start of a big conversation on how we should do that.”

We are grateful to the minister for her article this morning, but as in the prime minister’s speech, and curiously the actual roadmap itself—even after 60 pages—there is a lack of detail about what happens next. The roadmap only gives us directions to the starting line. By now, some might have been expecting details of the route rather than an invitation to a conversation.

Big talk

To give you a flavour of the vague nature of all this, Boris Johnson said in his speech: “We have umpteen fantastic, globally outstanding universities and yet too many degree courses are not now delivering value and for a century we have failed to invest enough in further education and give young people the practical training and further education they need.”

I wonder if “umpteen” was the most accurate data the Office for Students could supply the prime minister with. I note and pass at speed the reference to “too many” courses not delivering “value”, as if either of those terms meant anything specific.

However, I nearly fell out of our chair at the idea that further education had not had enough investment “for a century”. He is probably referring to the Education Act 1902, which brought into being Local Education Authorities, clearly still a bugbear for Johnson.

The prime minister also said: “I want to end the current injustice that means a pupil from a London state school is now 50 per cent more likely to go to a top university than a pupil from the west midlands.” There is some serious chicanery going on in that statistic, whatever is meant by “a top university”, all umpteen of them.

The BBC fact-checking service has looked at the prime minister’s speech in detail and has identified most of its spending pledges as either previously announced or inaccurate. A £5 billion package of infrastructure spending, including bridge repairs in Sandwell and tree planting (“to enchant the soul”) is hardly Roosevelt’s New Deal—spending on which was the equivalent of between 5 and 7 per cent of United States GDP over several years.

But what about science and research? The £22bn budget promised by the end of this parliament is real, isn’t it? Very much so, and it constitutes a far bigger investment than the ones announced with such gusto yesterday.

It is surprising, then, that Johnson does not have his arms around the release of the R&D roadmap this morning. This suggests one of two things: either Number 10 does not quite understand the nuts and bolts of the roadmap; or the lack of direction in the roadmap means we are not quite as ready for the big push as one might have been led to believe.

Roadmaps lead somewhere. This document is more of a treasure chest of what UK research does already, asking more questions than it answers. It is a brave and loyal attempt by the rained-on civil service to provide substance to Johnson and Dominic Cummings’s vague sketch.

It is to be hoped that the UK’s post-Brexit, go-it-alone GPS satellite system is better at plotting routes than the R&D roadmap.

Mapping out

Elsewhere on our site we have the details on what the document contains. Highlights include an ambition to “cut unnecessary bureaucracy” and “pursue ambitious ‘moonshots’”, while also setting up an Innovation Expert Group to advise on the commercialisation of research, writing an R&D people and culture strategy and establishing an Office for Talent, of which more later.

There will be a UK R&D place strategy, “long-term flexible investment into infrastructure and institutions”—whatever that means—and possibly associate membership of European research schemes, but then again possibly not. “We aim to maintain a close and friendly collaborative relationship with our European partners, seeking to agree a fair and balanced deal for participation in EU R&D schemes. If we do not associate to programmes such as Horizon Europe, we will meet any funding shortfalls and put in place alternative schemes,” says the roadmap, offering a fork in the road before we have even got started.

In his speech, Johnson said: “This summer we will be creating a new science funding agency to back high-risk, high-reward projects.” An Advanced Research Projects Agency would require primary legislation, but parliament goes into recess on 29 July—Arpa is not happening this summer.

I understand that when Cummings signed off the text of the roadmap, his only annotated change was to insert the words “at least” in this sentence: “We will invest at least £800 million to set up a unique and independent funding body for advanced research.” Cummings, of course, has form on editing documents to promote his own interests.

There is a level of ambition in public spending on research and it has been, since Theresa May’s time in Downing Street, just about the only credible strand of a post-Brexit economic strategy for the UK. It is surprising, then, that the individual pit stops in this roadmap do not seem to cohere into practical policy at this stage.

There is a long preparatory section—inspired by Solloway, I understand—on improving the culture of research, including those parts that “are the responsibility of universities”. There is much non-specific angst about too much bureaucracy in research and even concern expressed about bullying and harassment of researchers—it’s not a promising place to start when creating a science superpower.

The roadmap is characterised by a number of tensions that are going to be hard to reconcile. How can so much public money be spent on research while the government simultaneously pursues an ambition to dismantle the institutional safeguards around ensuring value for money and scrutiny of that investment?

UK universities have done pretty well in terms of research performance—we all know the metrics and that they account for 15.2 per cent of the world’s most highly cited articles—even though they seem to be, on the estimate of the roadmap, a cesspit of bureaucracy and bullying.

What is the correct balance between funding for blue-sky research and directed research? What are the barriers between curiosity-driven research and innovation? What is the relation between a proposed Arpa and the moonshots inspired by the prime minister’s Council for Science and Technology, and what actually goes on day to day in university and industry labs?

In his Dudley speech, Johnson said “we must end the chasm between invention and application”, but we have no firm commitment to joining the European Innovation Council, which under Horizon Europe will be an Arpa-inspired funder of deep-tech-based innovation and entrepreneurship.

Big questions

There is a lengthy section on the researcher pipeline and further reform of the visa system to encourage recruitment of international expertise. There will be an Orwellian-sounding Office for Talent.

“The new Office for Talent is a team based in Number 10 with delivery teams across government departments. It will ensure the UK’s talent offer is stronger than ever for students, those building their careers and those who are already world leaders in their fields, and will make it easier for those with the most talent, potential, energy and creativity to come to the UK from around the world,” says the roadmap.

It is not clear how “energy” will be measured in a points-based visa system. However, international students who complete a PhD in the UK will be eligible for a  three-year post-study work visa.

The roadmap also gives consideration to the problem of crowding in private investment for R&D, an essential part of reaching the 2.4 per cent of GDP target by 2027. In 2017, the government announced a 10-year strategy to leverage £20bn in private investment through programmes with the British Business Bank.

Since then, we have had Covid-19, a declining relationship with China and a possible no-deal Brexit. The government’s response seems to be “tackling regulatory barriers” and establishing an Innovation Expert Group of greybeards to advise on the right pro-innovation measures.

The section of the roadmap on levelling up R&D spending across the regions of the UK is worth a read. There is praise for the Strength in Places Fund and a recognition of the need to take greater account of place in funding decisions.

But for all the noise the government makes on levelling up, there is nothing new in the roadmap about what this might mean in practice. Sadly, there is not even a mention of the much-missed MIT of the North.

On the topic of overseas development research, the picture is much gloomier. While praising past successes, the roadmap is curiously noncommittal. “Our priorities and mechanisms of collaboration need to adapt to [a] changing world,” while through partnerships in countries eligible for official development assistance, “we are supporting future markets and promoting the world’s prosperity. We will continue to develop this approach,” says one paragraph, almost designed to make you think ODA funding will be used to serve trade policy rather than international development needs.

Each section of the roadmap ends with a series of questions to kick-start the conversation about where we go next. The final such section is on building facilities and infrastructure, but exactly what is to be funded in the next four years seems genuinely open to question.

So what happens next? “We will convene a series of ministerial chaired meetings over the next two months to hear from a range of stakeholders from across the UK. We will work at pace with the devolved administrations to establish the structures we need to deliver this plan, including the R&D Place Advisory Group, the Innovation Expert Group and new mechanisms for prioritising our infrastructure investments,” the roadmap concludes.

That’s good news for the Zoom subscriptions team but not quite a commitment to a transparent public consultation on how all this taxpayers’ money should be spent. Perhaps it has something to do with getting rid of all that nasty bureaucracy and public scrutiny.

New deal or no deal?

Of course I welcome a massive investment in research and innovation, and everything it means for universities. However, while iterations of this idea have moved through a series of science ministers from Jo Johnson, first time around, to Solloway, the plan has not necessarily become any clearer.

In betting the farm on science and innovation as the future of UK growth and productivity, and mortgaging universities to the success of that vision, the government is taking a huge gamble on a section of the economy that employs relatively few people at a time when its biggest challenge will be post-pandemic unemployment. It’s not very FDR.

My worry around the roadmap and the science strategy more generally is that, as with other aspects of government policy, such as the response to the pandemic or Brexit, there seems to be a desire to reinvent best practice at pace during a time of unprecedented upheaval, combined with a seeming lack of understanding of the hard yards required at the coalface to make any of this happen, and an unevidenced belief that an as-yet-unimagined technical solution will emerge deus ex machina to resolve all problems.

When targets without strategies fail to translate into results, higher education institutions, rather than ministers, will be the fall guys for an expensive failure.

I really hope I’m wrong about that. The big conversation initiated by the R&D roadmap today is an opportunity for universities to actively involve themselves in making sure we are.

Martin McQuillan is editor of the Research Professional News *HE service.

This article was originally published in the 1 July edition of the 8am Playbook email. To sign up for a personal copy, please email clientservices@researchresearch.com with SUBSCRIBE 8AM PLAYBOOK in the subject line. You can unsubscribe at any time.