Go back

From uncertainty to austerity: scary times for UK research


Chaos at the top of government promises researchers several flavours of trouble, says John Whitfield

Does the rate at which the UK gets through prime ministers really matter to researchers’ work, beyond the productivity lost to gazing slack-jawed at the news?

Research policy can seem a long way from the bloodsport politics of Downing Street and the House of Commons. It doesn’t make many mass media headlines or sway elections, and it’s not an area of sharp ideological divides between the parties.

Mostly, it revolves around the question of whether publicly funded researchers are being given enough money to get on with things.

But government is not a cash machine. Somewhere it has to interact with and, inevitably, shape the research system.

Keeping that interface far from the centre, and from broader policy goals, offers consistency. But it means slipping down ministerial priorities lists, and out of the limelight. 

Moving closer to the centre brings more political attention and heft, but also more exposure to changing political and economic currents.

For example, UK development research thrived while successive governments made strong policy and funding commitments to overseas aid, but was thrown into crisis overnight when that agenda was torched last year.

This matters because, in the UK, the trend has been towards tying research funding more closely to other programmes and priorities. Alas, the trend has also been towards chaos and incompetence in government.

As a senior researcher at a Russell Group university told me last week: “I was in a strategy meeting the other day. We were trying to align a five-year strategy with the government’s research strategy and…well, there isn’t one.”

So one of the leading research institutions in the country is now “basically going with what was written by the last two science ministers, crossing fingers and hoping that the next government doesn’t scrap everything to focus on robots, or cold fusion or something. Scary times.”

Strategies can change on the hoof, but only up to a point. ‘Stability’ has been the word of the last few weeks because it’s what is needed to make decisions about spending money, whether that’s taking out a mortgage, hiring staff or planning an R&D programme.

Many in the research world will be hoping that Liz Truss’s premiership was one of those potholes that does less damage if you drive over it quickly. How true that is will become clearer on 17 November, when chancellor Jeremy Hunt reveals his plans for the public finances.

The signs are not good, though. “There is no cake and you can’t eat it,” as British Academy chief executive Hetan Shah tweeted on 25 October, the day Rishi Sunak became prime minister.

There’s little sign of the government making much of an effort to confront immediate crises in health, social care, policing, prisons and schools, let alone climate change.

It seems unreasonable, then, for researchers to hope for more than that Sunak will keep the pledge to raise public R&D spending he made as chancellor in 2021, when inflation was less than half its current rate.

Creeping effect of cuts

Damage and decline in a research system is not the same as waiting 24 hours in an ambulance, or waiting months for an appointment with mental health services, or waiting years for a court case to come to trial. It will manifest as things that don’t happen—projects not done, people who choose a different career or a different country. 

Brexit has already surely caused many such non-events already—25 October brought news that UK-based researchers success at winning Synergy Grants from the European Research Council had halved in two years.

George Freeman understands the need to resolve the UK’s participation in EU research funding one way or the other, and his return to the business department brings hope of progress on this front at least. A bigger risk is that UK R&D goes from being hobbled by uncertainty to being hobbled by austerity.

In a 2020 paper titled ‘Factors predicting the scientific wealth of nations’, the psychologist Jüri Allik and his colleagues compared the quality of a country’s scientific output, gauged by combining average citation counts per paper and global share of highly-cited papers, to economic data and the Worldwide Governance Indicators compiled by the World Bank, which look at things like corruption, civil conflict and the rule of law. 

R&D expenditure was found to be “insignificant”, compared with other factors examined. 

“Excellent results in science cannot be achieved without good governance…[meaning] that state authority is exercised deliberately and meticulously,” they concluded.

It feels like a while since the UK had a meticulous government.  

John Whitfield is comment editor for Research Professional News 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight