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Invest for the future

Vivienne Stern says that long-term support is needed for research—of all kinds

Even by the usual standards of British public affairs, it has been an eventful few weeks: a new king, a new prime minister, new secretaries of state, new ministers, new advisers and the expectation of an emergency budget that will attempt to soften the impact of a severe economic crisis. But although there are plenty of other things to be worried about, our focus right now is on the financial position of students heading into a difficult winter, and on risks to the research budget.

Without passing comment on Boris Johnson’s leadership, it is undoubtedly the case that he, and those around him, understood the central importance of research to the UK’s future prospects. Many of those people are now gone—from Number 10 and from the Treasury.

The commitment to increasing investment in research and innovation to 2.4 per cent of GDP was genuinely ambitious and recognised that the UK—for all its widely recognised strength in research—was investing much less than its competitors. Indeed, we barely scrape into the top 20 for research spending among OECD countries, far outstripped by Israel, Korea and the US.

The question is: will this ambition be shared by our new leaders? In the face of extreme pressure on budgets, will the arguments for investment in the long-term prosperity and competitiveness of the UK economy get drowned out by short-term demands for government attention?

Scientific leadership

It is too easy to take the UK’s scientific leadership position for granted. After all, despite a long history of underinvestment, the UK is the world’s third-largest producer of research and has ranked first for field-weighted citation impact in every year since 2007. This is an extraordinary achievement. The real-world impact of this research strength was brought home to millions during the pandemic thanks to the contribution that the scientific community made to tackling Covid-19.

Although Covid put science in the spotlight, it should be well understood in government that research excellence lays the foundations for a strong and innovative economy, attracting talented people and brilliant companies to make the UK their home. It enables the UK to make an extraordinary contribution to the greatest challenges facing the world, including to every aspect of the effort to counter, mitigate and adapt to climate change.

But it is clear that we need to make the case again and that we can’t take it for granted that the prioritisation of research and innovation will continue. The immediate threat is to the budget for alternatives to Horizon Europe. The European Commission has given no sign that it plans to open the door to the UK’s association, and time is now running out. Our priority must be to ensure that government remains committed to funding the domestic alternatives we will need if the decision is eventually taken to go our own way.

Arts and humanities

This debate may be of particular concern to those who work in the arts, humanities and social sciences, which have been disproportionately successful in competition for European funds but don’t always get the recognition they deserve in a political landscape that seems increasingly utilitarian and focused on science, technology, engineering and maths.

It may be crass to suggest it, but I wonder whether the wider geopolitical context will increase political appreciation of the importance of understanding history, languages and culture—since they are so evidently central to so many of the great perturbations we are living through. Who in government could argue against the value of history or world politics in the face of the crisis in Ukraine, or the necessity of language and diplomatic skills in navigating the increasingly tense waters of international security and cooperation in the West’s relationship with China?

At Universities UK, we have an important role to play in advocating for the importance of research across the disciplinary mix.

The value of interdisciplinarity

Perhaps part of the answer is in making more of a deliberate effort to showcase the value of interdisciplinarity. In the past few weeks, as I prepared to take up the post of chief executive of UUK, I visited many institutions where physical space is being adapted to encourage collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. Our funding system doesn’t seem to have kept pace, and neither does political thinking. And yet, when you think about the climate challenge, it is clear that solutions will be found through a combination of technological and behavioural change.

Students seem to respond well to courses that bridge the sciences, arts and humanities, perhaps understanding better than politicians that we need a multifaceted approach to problem solving as we move further into the 21st century.

Interdisciplinary and combined subject areas are some of the fastest-growing courses universities have to offer. From industrial design offered in conjunction by Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art, to courses that combine physics and philosophy at the Universities of St Andrews and Bristol, students are already aware that the boundaries between subjects are increasingly fluid in our ever more connected world.

Support for Horizon

This brings us back, once again, to Horizon. Our position at UUK is clear: we want to continue our association. It is by far the best option for all parties and would provide security and reassurance to our universities that their research will continue uninhibited. However, should this relationship no longer be possible then it is imperative that the UK government follows through with its commitment to provide a fully funded and sustainable replacement—and this includes a clear commitment to continuing to support humanities, arts and performing arts to the same extent as Horizon.

It’s a criticism frequently levelled not just at universities but at education as a whole that all we’re ever doing is asking for more money. We know that this winter, and potentially the next 12 months, will be a period of financial hardship for everyone, and that calls for money for research could look self-serving. But perhaps a moment of national crisis was needed to redouble efforts to ensure that the government recognises the necessity of investment—for the future of the UK and the world. For all that, 2.4 per cent doesn’t seem such a high price.

Vivienne Stern is chief executive of Universities UK

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight