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Busy BIS?

20 May 2016

Andy Westwood, Professor of politics at Winchester University and co-director of Policy@Manchester, takes a look at what BIS officials have been up to recently.

Most of us are still reading the several hundred pages of policy documents published by BIS this week. A White Paper, a Higher Education and Research Bill and attached guidance, a technical consultation on the TEF and also the Shadbolt and Wakeham Reviews into Computer Science and STEM. That’s around 550 pages of extremely detailed policy and legislation. At least we now know why BIS officials have been pretty quiet over recent days and weeks?

The proposed architecture for science and research is now clear. UK Research and Innovation will oversee all seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new organisation – Research England – which will take over HEFCE’s responsibilities for research. There will also be a ‘strengthened’ CST. There has been some elegant and thoughtful drafting of governance with assurances of independence for Innovate UK and Research England and automatic board positions for the former and the chair(s) of CST on the overarching board at UKRI.

This doesn’t really demonstrate the White Paper’s bold claim of simplifying the research and innovation landscape by taking ten bodies down to two. Not least because with Research England, they’ve actually managed to create a new one. Time will tell if the proposed arrangements are less complex and/or more efficient than current arrangements.

But by and large the science community will be breathing a pretty big sigh of relief. It’s hardly carnage is it? And of course it also has money to spend with a decent Spending Review settlement.

That should be qualified because it won’t feel that way over on the ‘other side’ of the HE house. The new Office for Students will not only regulate universities, new ‘challenger institutions’ and manage the TEF. It will also have a long list of new responsibilities including monitoring the health of individual disciplines and departments. Many Vice Chancellors will need some convincing that a duty to work closely together with UKRI will compensate for not having a single body to look after the interest of universities as a whole. There will also be some bumps in the road as the HE Bill works it way through parliament. All of this will have an impact on UKRI as it gets established and begins to function.

But some of the safest hands in Whitehall will be handling it. John Kingman may have just missed out on the top job as Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, but he’s been a long term advocate for UK science. He’s a major reason behind not just George Osborne’s interest in and support for science but also Gordon Brown’s before him. He was around when long term funding for science was secured and the time that CaSE was called Save British Science. Remember the ‘Ten Year Science and Innovation Investment Framework’? ‘Science Cities’? The Research and Development Tax Credit?

In his time at the Treasury, John Kingman has been involved in all of them. He knows how to make the case for scientific impact on the economy. Significantly, he has also been at the heart of devolution policy and his role in completing Science and Innovation Audits could be another important part of his time at the helm. He has also worked closely with Lord Stern too back in the day when they were Treasury colleagues and Stern was assessing the economics of climate change. It’s further proof that science funding and science policy is firmly Treasury territory these days but I think we knew that anyway.

Both Kingman and Stern will play vital roles if the science community’s worst fears of ‘Brexit’ become a reality. Or if ‘Remain’ win and a new Chancellor is appointed in a rumoured reconciliation reshuffle after the referendum in June.

So there’s an awful lot that might still happen that could and should worry us. But there’s also enough in this week’s plans for the sector to offer some qualified support. In other words we can see who get the top jobs and how things pan out. Given that at various points in the last twelve months we’ve been worried about flat cash or worse spending settlements and losing research councils or Innovate UK, then I suspect many will be feeling slightly relieved when we’ve finally finished this week’s reading.

Professor Westwood is writing in a personal capacity

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