New science policy initiatives threaten to destroy UK’s research excellence

The only way is down? horiavarlan, CC BY

After several delays, the UK government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finally published its first strategy for UK science and innovation titled Our Plan for Growth. Strangely for such a long-anticipated and far-reaching policy document, it was published on December 17, when universities and the media were preoccupied with the announcement of the Research Excellence Framework results, a system to assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Like getting a jigsaw for Christmas, opening other parcels prevented people from taking more than a few colourful pieces out of the bag. But now that we have had the holiday to try to piece the jigsaw together, it doesn’t look so pretty.

Excellence unparallelled

To see why, we need to understand what has made the UK the most effective and efficient nation in which to do science in the world. An earlier 2014 report highlighted the outstanding international investment into UK science, and the huge citation rate of UK research relative to our investment in it. Citations are made in the form of references in scholarly publications and they are considered a proxy for the reputation of the scientific work.

The report also pointed out that having “independence from the government” plays a vital role in UK’s science policy. National research funding is allocated largely through its seven research councils, which analyse where the best work and opportunities lie. Their use of competitive peer review – where academics assess value of their peers’ research – ensures, for example, that research funding is not under the direct control of ministers tempted to benefit their own constituencies. Together with academics, the research councils create and support researchers to excel in their scientific output by global standards.

These elements of good practice were affirmed in a very recent triennial review, also published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in 2014. Great efficiency gains are won by situating most of UK research in Universities rather than in large national institutes (as happens in Germany, France and Russia). Tomorrow’s UK researchers are educated from their student days within a research context, synergies between research and teaching are exploited, and universities’ other income streams are geared effectively to amplify the limited central funding.

Side-stepping systems that work

But the new Science and Innovation Strategy seems to side-step the efficient system. It allocates capital spending of £42m for the Alan Turing Institute in London and £235m for the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials in Manchester.

This might looks like good infrastructure investment, when a recent community consultation indicated it was badly needed to keep the UK competitive. But what was the process? Did it yield the optimal outcome?

When members of the hopeful consortia for the Turing Institute turned up at the “town meeting” to inform and assist their applications, they were presented with the London plans as a fait accompli. And although the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) had been working up a strategic initiative on advanced functional materials, far from being drawn on, it was actually curtailed.

The decision to set up the Royce Institute involved no research council input or competitive peer review. When the science budget is so heavily constrained, £235m is not small change that can be ignored.

The UK expertise in material science is widespread and, as with the Materials Research Science and Engineering Centres in the US, fundamental research in the materials area is best done through networked centres of excellence. Even BIS’s own Catapult in High Value Maufacturing is a network of seven centres. One might have expected a fundamental science investment to follow their pattern, even link to it. One shiny new huge centre in the city abutting the Chancellor’s constituency is hard to understand.

Personal agenda?

Another surprise announcement was the Nurse Review of the Research Councils. To report before the summer on a hurried timescale and during an election, how could the Royal Society President Paul Nurse’s review add to the comprehensive 2014 Triennial Report?

What about those “heated exchanges” we hear about from Athene Donald, master of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, between research council chiefs and Mark Walport, the UK government’s chief science adviser, with the funding bodies worried about open-ended commitment to funding the growing number of large research institutes favoured by Walport, starting with London’s massive Crick Institute, directed by Paul Nurse?

As professors of science policy James Wilsdon and Kieran Flanagan have pointed out, Walport is now “the most powerful chief scientist” since the post was created in 1964. With the early departure of John O’Reilly, director general of knowledge and innovation at BIS, science minister David Willetts, and other key figures in BIS, there aren’t enough checks and balances to keep UK science policy high quality and clear of personal agendas.

The policy document published in December could be read as a long-term desire to re-centre UK science out of universities and into big expensive institutes, or a centralisation of research funding decisions at a whim rather than for a reason. It is hard to tell with so little clarity.

The terrible risk of personal agendas is that they substitute for real strategy, fail to synthesise the complex knowledge of others and create locked-in problems for a long time to come. I do fear for UK science.