Where to start
This review has been over 18 months in the making. It was rapidly apparent that it needed to be a complex and detailed analysis of the many different aspects of the way research is funded and conducted here in the UK, and importantly how that compares to other research-intensive countries.
I gathered evidence and information from over 270 national and international organisations and individuals, ranging from active researchers in different fields, to research leaders.
Together with government civil servants and science writer Kathy Weston, we set out to analyse the funding statistics, understand the perspectives of working scientists, and identify barriers to scientific progress.
The issues are clear
My review highlights significant problems about the UK’s RDI endeavour, some long-standing and serious.
The issues underpinning problems in UK scientific growth have been low government funding and insufficient use of that funding. We continue to lag behind other comparable countries. Our estimates put the UK at 27 out of 38 OECD nations for expenditure on R&D. Countries like Germany, the US and South Korea invest a much higher percentage of GDP into science.
Many of the issues we identified need to be addressed with a long-term commitment to increased and sustained funding for science in the UK, together with a variety of other changes:
- Lack of ‘end to end’ funding, meaning researchers can’t focus on their science;
- A need for greater diversity in the organisations carrying out science, some with a specialist focus or the management of core technological resources;
- Siloed working and a lack of permeability of information across the sector, which remains difficult to navigate;
- Overemphasis on reporting and bureaucracy;
- A need to create better working conditions and training opportunities for people pursuing careers in science.
Finally, a key issue which is extremely close to being addressed after years of unproductive negotiations, is association with Horizon Europe, the EU’s science funding mechanism.
Recommendations for improvement
The researchers and organisations I worked with also helped me present what are realistic changes that can be made across the sector to improve the UK’s scientific standing internationally.
- More UK Government investment in RDI is required which needs to be embedded in a stable Government policy environment.
I would like to see a cross-party commitment to increasing support for science, so that funding increases are sustained over a number of years.
- Focus for support should shift to cover full ‘end to end’ funding, liberating and motivating our researchers.
This includes proper investment in support for admin, the provision of sophisticated technical cores and facilities, and ensuring well-found labs and lab buildings are in place.
- The diversity of our research performing organisations needs to increase.
Our universities are very good on the international stage, and should be supported well. But public sector research establishments, research institutes and units are also important for UK RDI. Their roles include provision of national infrastructure, technical services and regulatory standards, sovereign expertise and emergency response. Units and Institutes can also provide a dedicated focus on specific research missions.
- There needs to be increased knowledge of, and permeability between, the range of research performing organisations in the UK RDI landscape.
Better understanding and knowledge of all sectors is required to allow navigation through the landscape. Good dissemination of knowledge will improve the permeability of ideas, technologies and of people, which is particularly important for interactions between industry and academia.
- We should remove unnecessary and excessive bureaucracy.
Research performing organisations should be able to earn trust from their funders and from government, rather than carrying out constant repeated audit, which takes time away from important research.
- We must nurture talent from the UK and attract it from across the world, providing the best training and employment conditions.
Technicians, PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, and early career research leaders are the engine room of the UK RDI landscape, and we will depend on them for the future.
- We must put in place effective international research arrangements. Central to this, is association with Horizon Europe.
There are three major groupings of science in the world, North America, Asia and Europe. The UK will find it extremely difficult to be an effective research power if it is alone and is not part of the European research network. Alternative arrangements elsewhere will be inadequate in comparison.
Optimism for the future
I am incredibly optimistic about the future of science for the UK, and the Government’s ambition to make our nation a scientific superpower but it requires significant future work to achieve this. My recommendations, which are only briefly summarised here, form a blueprint that can bring about the evolutionary changes needed to ensure a revolution in the UK RDI endeavour, vital for the future of the UK.
The first step should be to prioritise association to Horizon Europe and also set up pilot projects to test some of the recommendations I’ve presented. I look forward to working with colleagues in science and in government, to ensure we make positive progress.