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UKRI roundtable with Sir John Kingman

22 Nov 2016

A summary of CaSE’s event with Sir John Kingman and CaSE members on UKRI leadership & governance

On Monday 17th October we arranged a roundtable discussion with Sir John Kingman on the leadership and governance of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The meeting was an opportunity for Sir John, the Interim Chair, to set out his vision for UKRI. It also provided an opportunity for Government and Sir John to hear from of a broad cross-section of the scientific community, including those who have engaged extensively with the research and innovation system, those who have not but might like to, and those who observe it from afar.

The aim of the discussion was to take steps towards ensuring the governance and leadership of UKRI contributes to its success and enables research and innovation to flourish in the UK. It also provided a forum to consider the role that UKRI can play in the future of Britain as we attempt to establish an industrial strategy, a post-Brexit economy, and our new position in the world.

Context and vision

In his opening remarks, Sir John made clear that the ‘concrete is not set’ on the creation of UKRI, and that he was very keen on listening to what the sector had to say. Sir John underlined that his Chairmanship was an interim appointment. He will be accountable for setting up UKRI until April 2018, after which time a permanent Chair will come into post. Sir John expects a Chief Executive to be announced by Christmas 2016.

Sir John outlined his experience of working in the civil service, including 5 Spending Reviews, and his involvement in the 10 year science framework under Lord Sainsbury and the former Labour government.

Moving onto the broader context behind the reforms, Sir John admitted that big changes had taken place since UKRI and the HE & Research Bill were conceived, namely Brexit and the appointment of a new Prime Minister. He noted that the previous Chancellor had been a big supporter of science, however Sir John believes the new government recognises the importance of the UK science base. He highlighted encouraging signs that have already emerged, particularly Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s speech to Conservative party conference.

On the impetus for creating UKRI, Sir John’s view was that Sir Paul Nurse’s Review did not suggest that the Research Councils were broken but that there were gaps in strategic priorities across the councils and that an organisational change could address those issues. He said that Sir Paul was certainly not making the case for a whole-scale merger resulting in a large central body that would dominate the landscape, and Sir John believes that is not what UKRI will become. Rather he saw the UKRI CEO would have a small team that would operate as a strategic brain and act as an intelligent and challenging shareholder in research, holding the Research Councils to account and ‘holding their feet to the fire’ for instance on the dynamism of funding systems, joint working, and commercialisation.

Sir John recognised that there was an initial nervousness from the sector about placing Innovate UK into UKRI, but he strongly believes it is a necessary measure to further promote the overlap between research and commercialisation while maintaining the distinct focus and customer base of Innovate UK.

Sir John emphasised that fine-turning the structuring of UKRI would be handled by the Chief Executive and not himself and suggested holding another roundtable discussion with CaSE in a few months with the newly appointed candidate.


A wide ranging discussion followed which broadly covered interdisciplinarity, UKRI reach and UKRI voice.


One memorable comment was that technology is now ‘sector agnostic’ and UKRI must be able to work in that environment. A number of questions and comments were on the theme of interdisciplinarity, and how the structures, set up, and appointments to UKRI could work together to ensure UKRI strengthens working across and between disciplines. This challenge was recognised as one of the drivers behind the commissioning of the Nurse review which prompted these changes.

One of John Kingman’s primary roles as Interim Chair is to oversee the appointment of a CEO. Some participants raised that success at interdisciplinary working is dependent on the character of the individuals involved, not structures alone. There were suggestions that, to be successful, the search for the UKRI CEO and other leadership positions must not solely look for a strong leader in their own area but someone who excels at bringing people and ideas together.

One question raised was how the Research Excellence Framework (REF) could better reflect and support interdisciplinary working, which at present is challenging due to subject panels. It was also raised that there were some embedded issues with peer review that currently tend to reinforce disciplinary boundaries that these should be carefully considered as part of the set-up of UKRI. A question was also raised about disciplines that ‘fall between the cracks’ in the current system and how UKRI could address that. This led to a wider discussion about levers for promoting interdisciplinary working, including the central fund at UKRI level that featured in the Nurse Review. It was cautioned that this kind of fund could perhaps disincentivise individual councils from interdisciplinary work. However, other options were suggested, such as using a UKRI fund to match Council funding for interdisciplinary work. Participants summarised these issues as needing to consider UKRI ‘vertically’ and think about embedding change from top to bottom, not just at leadership level. These areas of discussion reflect a view that as well as getting the governance and leadership of UKRI right, there are some structural long-standing features of the current system that will need to be carefully considered if UKRI is to successfully meet the aim of improving cross-council, interdisiciplinary work.

UKRI Reach

Some of the discussion focused on the how UKRI would fulfil its UK-wide role. This was raised in particular in respect to the possibility of UKRI being skewed towards English priorities due to Research England being part of UKRI. The possibility of having representation from devolved nations on the UKRI Board was suggested as one way to achieve this. This is also something that has been raised in parliamentary debate of the Higher Education and Research Bill. John Kingman responded that he does not think that UKRI would be best served by a board that had fixed places for representatives for a particular interest, geographical or otherwise. He is very clear that he is leading a UK-wide organisation that needs to hold confidence across the UK and that UKRI must therefore foster strong working relationships across the UK. It would be important, for example, to recognise the different policy frameworks for science in the devolved nations of the UK in setting UKRI’s agenda. It was recommended that the UKRI board was constituted with an eye to diversity. Further, that not all meetings of the Board should be in London.

Another factor that has been raised in parliamentary debate and amendments on the Higher Education and Research Bill is around the links between teaching and research. The concerns arise from the departmental (DfE and BEIS) and organisational (Office for Students and UKRI) split between teaching and research. In the committee stage of the Bill in the House of Commons the suggestion has been that this is something that does not need to be addressed in legislation but rather in the set-up and implementation of the organisations. This concern was raised in the discussion and John Kingman said he was not concerned about OfS and UKRI working together believing it can be navigated, agreeing that it needs to be a close and porous relationship.

There was discussion around the reach of UKRI in terms of the breadth of stakeholders it engages with and serves. Some of the organisations present have had little or no interaction with the Research Councils or Innovate UK due to not knowing about what is available or how to access it despite having overlapping interests. This echoed some of the findings of the Dowling Review and John Kingman said that it presented a challenge to UKRI that it must meet.

UKRI Voice

The need for a stronger voice for science at the heart of Government is something that Sir Paul Nurse sees as a key function for UKRI leadership. Participants discussed the role of UKRI as a voice for the interests of research and innovation across government and more publicly. In particular, many people in the room were interested in how UKRI would fit with the Industrial Strategy that is being drawn up by the Government. In his response, John Kingman said that any industrial strategy for the UK must start with the strength of the science base and suggested that this was well recognised across government.

This led on to a wider discussion about the different areas of policy and government that matter for the science base from regulation and tax to visas, schools and skills. John Kingman sees that UKRI has a responsibility for the health of the science ecosystem and therefore UKRI and its leadership would need to be a voice for science in each of these areas, including as part of the negotiations and domestic policy response to Brexit. He also saw that the UKRI CEO would need to be someone who could be a powerful advocate for science and innovation, able to speak effectively behind closed doors and also more publicly than in the past.

Many thanks to Sir John, to those who participated, and to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers for kindly hosting the event.


  • Malcom Edwards – Imperial College London
  • Nigel Clarke – University of Sheffield
  • Louise Leong – AstraZeneca
  • Dan Edwards  – Electroimpact
  • Abigail Bristow – Institute of Acoustics
  • James Sullivan – Wiley-Blackwell
  • Andrew Jones – City University London
  • Nic Bilham – The Geological Society
  • Steve Wilks – Swansea University
  • Lesley Thompson – Elsevier
  • Michael Wakelam – Babraham Institute
  • Jocelyn Bell Burnell – University of Oxford
  • Hetan Shah – Royal Statistical Society
  • Robert Parker – Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Bob Sorrell – BP
  • Aisling Burnand – Association of Medical Research Charities
  • Deborah Pullen – BRE Trust
  • Rishi Saha – Facebook UK
  • Colin Smith – Rolls-Royce
  • John Kingman – BEIS
  • Cameron Yorston – BEIS
  • Laura Frascona – BEIS
  • Naomi Weir – CaSE
  • Sarah Main – CaSE
  • Tom Denbigh – CaSE