20 May 2016

The Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson, sets out what the Government's higher education reforms mean for UK research and innovation.

Britain is a science and engineering powerhouse. From gravity to graphene, the structure of DNA to our new polar research ship, there are few countries with our heritage or impact.

This week we published a white paper and proposals for legislation to build on these strengths. I wanted to take this opportunity to write directly to CaSE members and the whole research community to set out what these reforms mean.

We’re starting from a position of strength. We have the most productive research base in the world as measured by citation impact. At a time of difficult spending decisions elsewhere in the public sector, the Government has protected the science budget. But being world-class is not just about investment. It is also about building collaborations across disciplines and between countries; finding new applications for technology; seizing commercial opportunities; and being able to respond swiftly to threats and challenges.

That’s the context in which we will bring together the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research and knowledge exchange functions of HEFCE under a single strategic funding body, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI).

Sir Paul Nurse challenged us to ‘support the Research Councils to collectively make up more than the sum of their parts’, and in particular to support multi- and inter-disciplinary research. UKRI will have a combined budget of around £6 billion, led by a Chair and a Chief Executive who will be a major voice for British research and innovation across government and the world.

But I am very clear about the need to preserve the strengths of our current system. That’s why we are making these commitments:

  • The Government is fully committed to the Haldane Principle and to the science ring-fence, and will continue to allocate a separate innovation funding stream, as at present.
  • We are preserving individual Research Council identities within UKRI. AHRC, BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, MRC, NERC, STFC will continue to serve their communities, each with its own budget set by Ministers, as now. Each will be led by an Executive Chair with a senior scientific Council to develop their research strategy.
  • We are not only preserving Dual Support but in fact strengthening it. At present, this bedrock of stability for the research community could be abolished at the stroke of a pen. For the first time, we plan to give legal weight to dual support.
  • Innovate UK will also have its separate Executive Chair, council and funding stream, with its business-facing focus enshrined in law and a mandate to help deliver commercial impact and a competitive advantage for the UK economy.

As we establish the Office for Students, we also plan to move HEFCE’s research funding and knowledge exchange roles into a new executive arm of UKRI to be known as Research England. This part of UKRI will administer the block grant to English universities and work with the devolved funding bodies to deliver the REF, as HEFCE does now.

Altogether, that means a single UKRI that preserves the autonomy of all the existing funding bodies while also creating a stronger voice for UK research and innovation.

We will be recruiting new leaders for UKRI, with a balance of academic and business experience on its board, as is currently the case for all the research councils. In the meantime I am delighted that John Kingman will be taking up the role of Chair of UK Research and Innovation, on an interim basis, to set-up the organisation in shadow form while we recruit for the permanent positions. During his time at the Treasury, John worked with successive administrations to prioritise investment in research and innovation, and to grow our Catapult network. He will lead the transition and support the search for a senior scientific figure to head-up UKRI, and will be working closely with all the existing funding bodies.

You can read more about these plans in our white paper, published online here.

Jo Johnson MP is Minister of State for Universities and Science

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