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Supporting UK research in a reformed policy and funding landscape

Martina Tortis

Martina Tortis

Former Policy Analyst
Universities UK

The green paper and the Nurse review leave no doubt that the research policy and funding landscape could undergo quite a radical overhaul in the future. This comes alongside significant uncertainty about what the Comprehensive Spending review (CSR) will hold for UK research. It also raises questions around how to best meet the objectives and aspirations set out for the research base in the three documents, without diluting those elements of the current policy and funding structures that are absolutely essential to its health and continued success.

The UK research base is one of the most effective and successful systems in the world. We have a global reputation for excellence, and – as also remarked last week in the Science and Technology committee’s inquiry into the science budget  – the policy environment, dual support funding system and the rigorous and transparent way in which investment and funding decisions are made, have been central to our status as ‘science superpower’.

Maintaining the integrity of the dual support system is an absolute priority for UUK.  Previous post on our blog have highlighted the strengths of this system; and it was encouraging to see these acknowledged in the Green Paper (alongside a reiterated commitment by government to safeguard this dual structure), and again in Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research councils. However, the success – and integrity – of dual support need to be seen in the context of the principles, organisational arrangements and the allocation mechanisms that underpin it.

Let’s start with the principles: it must be made clear that, to remain effective, dual support needs to continue being underpinned by governance arrangements grounded in peer-reviewed excellence and independent, expert day-to-day decision-making on research funding (as set out by the Haldane principle). This is not to say that, for instance, there isn’t any scope for improving the peer review-centred REF or support for interdisciplinary research across the Research councils, but for us it’s essential that any changes are approached sensibly and with due consideration to how these will impact the integrity of those principles.

Secondly, and in line with Sir Paul’s recommendations, in a reformed research funding landscape, the integrity of dual support funding is unlikely to be preserved without:

  • an arms-length relationship between BIS and the dual support funder(s);
  • a clear separation of functions, budgets and responsibilities between the entities charged with allocating RC and QR funding
  • a separate allocation process for QR funding, informed by its own quality assessment mechanisms rather than by simple funding metrics based on success in securing other funding streams (which would inevitably compromise the continued separation between the two legs of dual support); more widely, it’s important that the allocation processes for both QR and RC funding continue ensuring that research excellence is rewarded wherever it takes place; the dynamic balance between strategic/investigator-led projects and institution-led research is maintained; and the effective mix and structure of incentives provided by dual support remains in place; and
  • ensuring the success and sustainability of research activity continues to be monitored from a whole-institution perspective, in recognition of the value of scholarship to research quality, and the synergies and efficiencies achieved within universities across teaching, research and knowledge exchange activities.
And finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a successful dual support system is also one in which there is sufficient, stable funding for the positive performance incentives within it to work effectively, and for research organisations to support the costs of their activities sustainably. With the real terms erosion of science budget funding over the last four years and the growing deficit experienced by institutions on their research activities (now exceeding 35% of income), it is essential that the CSR 2015 delivers a sustainable financial settlement for the research base. For us, this can only be achieved through a commitment to at least maintaining funding levels for all organisations currently funded from the science budget up to 2019-20, alongside a long term strategy to close the UK’s gap in R&D investment with competitors. The Nurse review has also highlighted the need for ring fenced funding and a long-term approach to investment.

Spending reviews and reforms can be a risk to the achievements of a system that has been proven to work well, but also an opportunity to signal confidence in the case for public investment in science and research, reflect on the successful elements of the current system and drive changes that are sensible and far-sighted. It is in this spirit that we’re approaching the policy and funding questions raised by the CSR outcomes, the Green Paper and the Nurse review.

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