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UKRI to be a 'world leading' research and innovation agency

While the UK has less than 1% of the world’s population and accounts for just 3.2% of global R&D spending, it produces 16% of the world’s most cited research papers. Meanwhile, the Global Innovation Index ranked the UK third out of 128 countries in 2016.

So the establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) comes at a propitious time for research and science in the UK and when Professor Sir Mark Walport takes up his position as UKRI’s chief executive next April, he will be managing a budget of around £6billion.

When appointed earlier this year, Sir Mark said he wanted to build on the success of the current system, with the aim of making UKRI ‘the world’s leading research and innovation public funding agency’.

He talks positively about working closely with the existing Research Councils, Innovate UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England and about how he is determined to provide a ‘strong and coherent voice’ for UK science and innovation.

According to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson: “The creation of UKRI represents possibly the largest reform to science since 1965 and the creation of the research council system. We’re putting resources behind the rhetoric and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last year confirmed that funding would rise by nearly £5bn by 2020/21, despite continuing pressure on the public finances.”

In a recent speech outlining UKRI’s role, Sir Mark praised the government’s record on investment in science, research and technology and explained why the establishment of UKRI was both timely and necessary.

A strategic function
While he made it clear that the new body’s strategic function would be to bring greater focus, he called for a more collective vision when it came to science and research and tackling issues with a global impact.

“Everyone recognises the world is changing and that we need to address a number of complex challenges, such as climate change, ageing, security and the delivery of better public services,” he said.

“We have the most amazing tools available to us today; we are in a world of large data and, in this world, we can analyse research data from every field. But, to tackle the big questions, we have to recognise that we need an interdisciplinary approach.

“Research is a global activity and operates in an international landscape; no one nation can go it alone and scientists need to be able to work together and pool their knowledge and understanding.”

Another reason for setting up UKRI, according to Sir Mark, was because the world of business and industry was changing.

“Industry 4.0 is seeing the fusion of physical and digital science with technology. We are living in a world where business is being driven by the availability of data and the ability to analyse it in new ways. We are seeing a blurring between manufacturing and services and need to maintain the value of resources for much longer in this increasingly circular economy.”

Innovate UK will have an important role to play; one that is both transformative and business-facing in strengthening innovation in the UK. Continuing its work alongside the research councils, it will ‘have a vital role building the bridge between innovative businesses and our research base’, he said.

Sir Mark also considered how society, in its broadest sense, was evolving and how the perception of ‘experts’ and science was changing.

“Today, research is seen as part of the establishment, rather than challenging it,” he suggested. He contrasted Darwin’s theory of evolution – seen when first published as a threat to orthodox, established religious beliefs – with how research and science are perceived today. “It requires us, as experts, to engage with the broader population and non-scientific communities to demonstrate what it is to be an expert.”

Sir Mark argued that it was crucial for the UK to take a more integrated approach when it came to addressing these ‘big’ challenges.

“It has to be about making the whole greater than its parts,” he said. “I believe that UKRI has a crucial role to play in achieving this.”

A joined up approach
According to Sir Mark, UKRI has to deliver a joined-up approach to interdisciplinary problems, improve collaboration within the research base and ensure that a highly trained and diverse workforce was available to drive the commercialisation of discoveries.

UKRI needs to have a highly effective strategic brain at its centre, with the aim of making sure that ‘we invest every pound wisely’. He said that would be essential to ensure the future funding needed and only then would the UK be able to retain and build on its position of international excellence in research and have a successful knowledge-based economy.

Sir Mark, currently chief scientific adviser to the UK government, is well known for his experience of government and of the funding of science, but his appointment has not been without criticism.

Some are concerned that his appointment, and the creation of UKRI, will bring a more centralised approach and undermine the role of the individual research councils, which are seen to have been a great success.

There are also concerns that the new structure will represent a merger of what has proved a very successful model for science and research and result in the loss of the close relationships that exists between specialist funding bodies and research groups. Many see the reorganisation of the research councils as putting too much power in the hands of one person.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC at the time of Sir Mark’s appointment that, while he was the ‘ultimate operator’ in British science, bringing a wealth of experience, connections and vision, there were genuine concerns that he would oversee ‘greater centralisation of power and political direction across the research system’.

However, Sir Mark and UKRI’s supporters see this reorganisation as essential if the UK is to remain attractive to the best and the brightest minds.

“UKRI will succeed only if it continues to attract outstanding people to lead the individual research councils and Innovate UK,” he said. “Indeed, this has to be one of the most concrete ways in which UKRI’s performance should be judged. Our research system is only going to be as good as the people within it.”

UKRI will also look to tackle the reproducibility of research and how research and innovation is communicated in the most effective ways.

Sir Mark noted it was also crucial that ‘the brightest minds get the best opportunities and have the best chances to progress in their careers, both inside research and innovation, and actually, outside research and innovation’.

The UK, by any measure, has some of world’s the best research universities and these are an exceptional economic asset.

“If we are to understand the challenges we face and seek to find answers to some of the fundamental questions, we need to develop a strategic vision,” he concluded.

The establishment of UKRI is seen by many as an important first step.

Neil Tyler

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