Kingman: ‘take nothing for granted’ on research spending pledge

Outgoing UKRI chair says this autumn’s spending review will be a ‘make-or-break moment’

七月 15, 2021
Businessman with his fingers crossed behind his back
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The outgoing chair of the UK’s main research funder has raised doubts about whether the Westminster government will honour its spending promises to the sector, warning that this autumn’s spending review will be a “make-or-break moment”.

Sir John Kingman, who stepped down as chair of UK Research and Innovation last week, told an event hosted by national academies that universities should “take nothing at all for granted” when it came to the pledge to spend £22 billion a year on research and development by 2024-25.

Sir John highlighted that this year’s UKRI budget was 8.2 per cent lower than last year’s, a result that was “clearly not good”, and while the deepest cuts had been to research funded via the UK’s overseas aid budget – reductions that he “greatly regret[ted]” – he added that he was “particularly concerned” about a real-terms cut of 6 per cent to core funding for the research councils and Research England in the decade to 2020-21.

“I’m afraid this autumn’s spending review really is now a make-or-break moment,” Sir John said.

Sir John, a former second permanent secretary at HM Treasury, contrasted this with the government’s stated aim of making the UK a “science superpower”, with 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product being invested in research and development by 2027.

“The £22 billion figure sometimes appears with a date (2024-25) attached, sometimes without. It is a commitment that tends to be conspicuously absent from recent Treasury documents,” Sir John said.

“And it is a number that offers plentiful scope for definitional jiggery-pokery. Moreover, the hard fact remains that if the government really does intend to grow R&D spending in this way in a relatively small time, to cut UKRI’s budget by 8 per cent this year is a very peculiar way to start.

“My blunt advice to those who care about research funding is to take nothing at all for granted. And to focus on real decisions and real budgets, not medium-term promises.”

Sir John said that he “[did not] think that the Treasury can’t be persuaded” but highlighted the difficulty of securing such promises in an “ever-shifting political environment”.

He noted that in his five years as chair, the Theresa May government had been supportive of UKRI but more interested in industrial strategy, and then, under Boris Johnson, chief prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings wanted a significant shift in support from applied to pure research. The current administration, under business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, “has yet to show its hand”, Sir John said.

“It is a very serious question for UK R&D policy whether it can possibly be conducive to success – however defined – for policy to lurch so widely in a small time, driven by the inevitably random walk of political personalities,” he warned.

“Whatever approach the UK wants to take, science, research and innovation policy is a long-term game. As a nation, I suggest we are much more likely to make progress in this area if we pick a broad strategic approach and a strategy and stick at it for a decent period.”

Sir John also raised concerns about the “cat’s cradle of micro-controls” – which he likened to treacle – that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy placed on UKRI. He highlighted that the post of head of Innovate UK was left open for three years “as government process took us round and round in circles”, and that recruitment of a new head of the Economic and Social Research Council was only just now getting under way, eight months after Jennifer Rubin announced her departure.

“However good some of the individuals, the department has a very strong and embedded institutional culture: it is by habit a perpetual motion machine of internal process; it treats time as a free good; and it does not focus on outcomes,” Sir John said.

“Then, overlaid on all that, is the current government’s intense suspicion of appointments proposals that come through the institutional machine, and the deployment of many political advisers around government, all of whose views are thought to be needed before every stage of every process for every minor appointment can proceed. There are a lot of appointments, and special advisers are very busy. As a result, they tend to do their collective political policing job extremely slowly.

“These processes can also lead to strange, unexplained decisions – surprisingly often, rejections of people who are clearly world-class. Ministers of course have every right to appoint whoever they want. Nevertheless, there are costs to the UK, and to UK science, in turning superb people down. One does wonder whether this is a luxury the country can really afford.”

A BEIS spokeswoman said: “The prime .inister has reasserted our financial commitment to maintaining the UK’s position as a science superpower, and as part of that we have committed to investing £14.9 billion in research and development in this financial year – its highest level in four decades.

“We are also looking at how we can reduce red tape for our world-leading researchers. The bureaucracy review, led by Professor Adam Tickell, reflects our commitment  to enhancing the UK’s world-leading reputation for research and development and to becoming a science superpower.”



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