No Utopian solution for future funding, but partnership offers a fighting chance

Posted in: Science and research policy

Professor Chick Wilson, Department of Chemistry

There is no point in hiding from the truth; an already difficult and complex situation for research funding became significantly more complicated following the Brexit vote in June. We must not lose track of the fact that the pre-Brexit funding landscape had been complicated not only by successive settlements which, while protecting science from the worst of the fiscal reductions evident elsewhere in Government, introduced new strings to much of the effective flat cash settlements with which the research community have made only tentative steps in being able to appreciate to date. It is to the credit of the previous Chancellor that, relatively speaking, he did protect research from cuts that would have severely hampered the ability of the UK to continue punching above its weight in research delivery and impact. However, this was achieved through a series of compromises that became increasingly severe as time proceeded through his Chancellorship. Having seen major research funding within the ring-fence earmarked for major investments that made for eye-catching announcements, the culmination of what some may regard as a dilution of core research funding was the establishment of the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), which will ramp up to account for a total spend of £1.5 billion by 2021. This protects research funding but only by coupling it strongly with resource that can be accounted towards the UK commitment to 0.7% ear-marking of government spend for international development efforts, through DfID. The latter government department plays arguably an unexpected central role in the UK research environment; embracing and understanding that partnership will be both key and a significant challenge for the research community, particularly those not historically tuned into the international development agenda.

The history of the GCRF is interesting in itself. Rumours of a “Grand Challenge Fund” were around in 2015 both prior to and immediately following the General Election in that year. Rumoured to be a “top-slicing” of funding from the budgets of each of the seven research councils (and this idea is likely still to form part of the future landscape), there was significant engagement between the research councils and their communities, with each identifying key Challenges that could be addressed by such a fund, of order £100M per annum. Taking advantage of this opportunity would have been a challenge in itself, requiring new interdisciplinary approaches to research and targeting if existing efforts towards the unified priority areas. The GCRF that emerged as part of the CSR2015 statement was, to most of the community, surprising in the extent to which it is targeted at delivering research that focuses on producing solutions that are relevant in development contexts.  It is new, it is different, it challenges our thinking as researchers but also, crucially, challenges our funders in the Research Councils. It is obvious from the response to the modest funding available through GCRF in 2016/17 that the Councils have dramatically different views on how and where this fund could best be targeted; these differences in views will become crucial when the non-earmarked finds kick in from 2017/18 onwards. Here is where partnership with our funders will become increasingly crucial. Engaging with RCUK colleagues will enable the research community to influence approaches to the GCRF, not only to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of UK research as well as its targeted beneficiaries in the developing world. Moreover, and more of this below, such partnership can also help reinforce the case made for the importance, relevance, adaptability and impact of the UK research base, to ensure that the full extent of the GCRF can still be delivered in the post-Brexit landscape.

Of course the new elephant in this room, as is true of other funding streams for UK research, is the inevitable alteration of the landscape for EU funding into the UK. For researchers this primarily presents as the funding distributed by the European Research Council, through a wide range of often complex streams held within the Horizon 2020 framework. The UK is a substantial contributor to the ERC budget, but as is well rehearsed, is also a major beneficiary from these research funds, with funding wins for UK researchers consistently outstripping the contribution made. A situation of such “juste retour plus” is to be, and has been, celebrated and is a core element of the UK research funding landscape. The announcement by the new Chancellor on 13 August that EU funds awarded to UK researchers prior to Brexit will be underwritten by the Treasury is welcome, positive and may well have broader implications for the place of research in the new administration’s thinking.  However, this guarantee is of course limited to the pre-Brexit period, and it goes without saying that the post-Brexit destination of this funding is critical to sustaining our research; once the imperative to respect these prior commitments has been removed, it will be important not to rely on some of the more optimistic, naïve hopes and expectations about this funding. Many cling to the commitments to repatriate EU contributions “in full” to UK needs post-Brexit, of whatever true value they represent, but of the priorities for this advanced in securing the plurality for Leave in the Referendum, just think where research funding might sit with respect to the NHS, regional development, agriculture and others. Some believe that we can lobby the Government to fill the European funding gap in its entirety, and even to make the case to deliver in the future not only the UK contribution but the juste retour-plus bonus also. We can say it, but how will we make such a possibility realistic or even possible? As we move to make the case for this next stage of the argument, we must be realistic and robust in our engagement and influencing of policy, setting out the case without falling into the trap of seeking funding to be maintained “because it is what we have now” and instead make the case within the frame of the critical importance of the research base for the UK economically and societally. We must do this in partnership with those fighting the same battle, including our RCUK partners; this is also relevant to the arguably more fundamental question of what our broader relationship with EU research funding will be in future.

Assuming the new post-Brexit administration maintains continuity of approach to research funding, we in the research community have clear challenges, some of which have been noted above but also including the establishment of the unified funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Our response must be positive but not Utopian. We must work with both existing and evolving partners in fighting for the next settlement for UK research, in particular as part of Brexit negotiations and in renewing our lobbying and influencing prior to the autumn financial statement. A recent UUK meeting was addressed by one of these partners, Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee.  As with our RCUK partners and the GCRF, it is clear that the S&T Select Committee needs the mature engagement of research community in undertaking its important work in protecting and promoting UK research and the importance of its adequate funding. Another partnership with which we must work, offering well-reasoned but again realistic and non-naïve inputs to its consultations and evidence sessions. Being confronted with a research community that refuses to accept reality and wishes to envisage solutions that pretend that major perturbations have not occurred will do none of us any good. We will not be able to exert our influence unless we are robust, realistic and creative in our views, and produce viable alternatives that can form part of a real policy delate rather than presenting unachievable pipe-dreams.

In this, the research community must show itself to be increasingly sophisticated in engaging with those with whom we share common cause. Likewise with RCUK as it moves towards the establishment of UKRI. Long gone are the days when we could consider our relationships with the Research Councils and their committed staff as “them and us”; this relationship has changed out of all recognition in the last decade or more, and we must utilise these increasingly important partnerships to secure our funding future.


Posted in: Science and research policy


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response