Skip to content

What should the future of UK research look like?

09 Nov 2016

Professor Lord Krebs, former Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee, contemplates the UK’s support of science, and ponders how it can continue to foster further success despite current challenges

The UK science base, unlike its national football squads, is a success story.  I hardly need to repeat the facts.  Our impact in terms of citations (nearly 16% of the most highly cited papers from about 4% of the world’s scientists) is extraordinary.  According to the latest Times Higher Rankings, the UK has a fifth of the world’s top 20 Universities.  The UK is second only to the US in number of science Nobel Prizes won. This is in spite of the fact that our public funding accounts for about 0.5% of GDP, compared with 0.77% for the G8 and 0.67% for the EU as a whole.  

So perhaps the best recipe for the future is to nurture the things that have made us so successful in the past while at the same time trying to understand how we can do even better.

Why is the UK so successful in science?  I don’t think anyone has unravelled the magic formula.  Beyond our advantage stemming from the fact that English has become the global language of science as a result of the dominance of the US and UK, there are several possible contributors: The UK is relatively non-hierarchical and tends to like mavericks; it is traditionally open and welcoming to talent from all over the world; the Haldane Principle and the associated autonomy of the Research Councils has in large degree protected science from Ministerial meddling; and the UK has fostered research and teaching, feeding off each other, in the leading Universities, as opposed to focussing research in government labs, as has been the tradition in some other countries.  In these ways, the UK resembles the US more than many of the other European countries.

It will not be enough to stand still, in an increasingly competitive world.  But unfortunately, current policy threatens to dismantle some of our architecture of success rather than enhancing it.  

The Government’s stance on visas and post study work has already discouraged overseas students from coming to the UK, to the advantage of our competitors. Recent Ministerial comments following the Brexit Referendum have upped the anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly in relation to overseas students.  As a result our success in attracting future Nobel Prize Winners from overseas is likely to be much reduced. (It’s worth remembering that a significant number of “our” past Nobel Prizes were won by immigrants).

The current Higher Education Bill is proposing to radically overhaul the system.  Among other things, the Bill hands Ministers the power to close down Universities or Research Councils, to guide Universities at the level of individual courses, and to direct the new overarching research funding body, UKRI on the allocation of its funds.

Although Ministers utter reassurances that these changes will do no harm, this is not convincing. Rather than digging up the roots, Government should be building on past success to ensure that our science base continues to be outstanding with all the consequent benefits for society.

It’s tempting to look back on the ‘good old days’.  When I started out as an academic, there was no REF, no pressure to demonstrate relevance or publish lots of papers, freedom to explore whatever was interesting, and no one had heard of impact factors and H indices. 

I am not saying that the world of research was necessarily a better place, but it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the scientists at the top of their field today grew up in this world.  We may have to wait a whole generation to discover whether or not the giant experiment that is currently being carried out on our research and university system has improved things.

Related articles

Lifting the lid on how Spending Reviews work
24 October 2021

Read our latest piece from Isobel Stephen, Executive Director, Strategy, Performance and Engagement at UKRI

Going Viral: leveraging UK science to tackle a pandemic
19 May 2021

Sarion Bowers, Head of Policy at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, on the Institute’s role in tackling the Covid pandemic and what we can learn for the future.

Reflections on elections (and other events)
06 January 2021

At the end of his six year term as CaSE Chair, Professor Graeme Reid looks back on what the organisation has achieved and the challenges that still lie ahead.

Influencing the Spending Review; a view from the inside
09 October 2018

Jeremy Clayton is a member of the CaSE Board of Directors and was previously BIS Director responsible for research funding and policy during the Coalition Government. As the 2019 Spending Review approaches, he reflects on how best to influence key decision-makers.