Written by Daniel Cremin, Head of External Affairs & Government Relations, King’s College London
Game-changing developments from Whitehall can be like buses – you can often wait for years, and then 3 or 4 tend to turn up in very close proximity.
Recent months have heralded significant developments with long-term implications for King’s and the wider UK science and research landscape.
After several months, in the immediate post-Brexit period, of making positive but non-committal noises about the importance of science and innovation, Theresa May’s reformulated Government opted to decisively put its money where its mouth is at the Autumn Statement in December 2016.
To the surprise of many in the research world, who had expected a more modest increase in investment, the Government revealed that science and research would be a cornerstone feature of its revitalised industrial strategy. This made it one of the biggest winners from its decision to step back from the strictures of austerity and borrow more to drive economic development more widely across the UK.
The additional funding, awarded as part of a broader National Productivity Fund that will also support additional investment in infrastructure projects and skills development, will deliver an extra £4.7 Billion for research across the period of 2016-17 to 2020-21. The specific funding calls have not been announced but it is expected that they will cover research in all disciplines.
An increase in this level hasn’t been seen in the UK since the 1980s and is truly exciting as it brings with it enormous potential to enrich the research endeavour through the delivery of new technologies and laboratories, as well as supporting initiatives to bolster the impact and global connectivity of the research community.
The details of how the additional funding will be allocated won’t emerge until after the Budget in March, but present intelligence indicates that a significant amount of the funding will be directed through the tradition dual funding streams of the Research Councils and the REF-linked QR block grant institutional allocations. Place is likely to feature more acutely in the decision-making process in future.
As part of the Autumn Statement the Government indicated that some of the additional funding would be specifically targeted at helping to catalyse university-industry collaboration to advance the UK’s strengths in relation to both existing and nascent technologies which offer high-growth potential.
The Government has swiftly followed up with the publication of the Industrial Strategy Green Paper in mid-January, and an accompanying consultation exercise on a proposed Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, to be managed by UK Research and Innovation.
In addition to 8 core challenge areas which largely map to, but slightly expand thematically on, the Government’s already established 8 Great Technologies framework, Innovate UK and the Research Councils are using the consultation to seek views on two additional potential thematic areas, shown beneath the green line in the diagram below.
The other big development, with potentially long-term implications, was the announcement on 2nd February that the Government’s present Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir Mark Walport, will become the first Chief Executive of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI). He will establish the organisation in shadow form across 2017, with the first set of HEFCE and Research Council staff expected to transfer by summer, before UKRI becomes fully operational in April 2018.
This is a significant appointment as Sir Mark, a former Chief Executive of Wellcome Trust, has long advocated that a greater share of the science and research budget should be concentrated on supporting major national and international scientific hubs and infrastructure initiatives.
Although he is an advocate of universities playing a key role in the driving excellence in both pure and applied research, there is the potential that his stewardship of UKRI – which will without doubt be a powerful super-agency – could lead to some notable changes in the way the Research Councils allocate funding for major awards, fellowships and doctoral training in the next few years.
He is also a strong advocate of bolstering investment in smart cities technologies as well as research and development activity in relation to sustainable urbanisation and low carbon energy storage, so these could well be significant beneficiaries over time as a result of his tenure. You may find “Technology and Innovation Futures”, a report issued by the Government Office for Science Sir Mark oversees an interesting read.