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Pandemic year shows UKRI is more than the sum of its parts

Image: UK Research and Innovation

Covid-19 response has highlighted unique strengths—and how to improve, says Ottoline Leyser

My first year at UK Research and Innovation has been one of unprecedented events. There have been great successes, significant setbacks and things we could have done better.

Among the successes were the amazing response to the pandemic, ongoing trials of the RRS Sir David Attenborough research vessel and the UK’s association with Horizon Europe. But cuts to development funding and the stresses placed on the research and innovation community by coronavirus have been painful and distressing.

It has been inspiring to work with so many excellent people—both in UKRI and beyond—who have adapted to the changing landscape at speed. I would rather not have had to do it on Zoom, but at least it minimised my carbon footprint.

It is a well-rehearsed argument that the pandemic showed the extraordinary power of research and innovation. It also highlighted the inequalities in the sector, and society more generally, while providing evidence that we can do things differently. There are transformative opportunities for our society from research and innovation, and we have the power and the imperative to take them.

This is why UKRI was created. The central vision of the Nurse Review was to build a “compact that bonds science and society, which will both deliver excellent science and ensure that it is used for the public good”. That compact has shone out through the pandemic.

Swift response

UKRI’s unique reach across disciplines and sectors allowed us to assemble funding calls at speed to address the research questions raised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Early analysis of the outcomes shows a major impact.

The process was, of course, not perfect and we must learn from what did and did not work, making better use of the deep expertise across the nine research councils to optimise the services we provide.

Coming into a relatively new organisation, I was impressed by how UKRI moved as much as possible to home working and kept national research facilities open. This is especially impressive considering that our data systems—particularly the 20-year-old Joint Electronic Submissions for grant applications—are in serious need of updating.

Developing a new system isn’t just about IT—it is a whole-service project, aimed at attracting, identifying and supporting the best possible portfolio of activity.

I am delighted that Duncan Wingham, executive chair of the Natural Environment Research Council, is leading this project, under the banner of Simpler and Better Funding. There is a wide range of opinion about how to do this well, and one size will never fit all. Pilots are already running with community feedback informing further development.

False dichotomies

Currently, UKRI spends £8 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. We spend it on everything from mitigating climate change, to tackling multimorbidity, advancing quantum technologies and providing new ways to visit the UK’s museums. We fund people, infrastructure, institutions, projects, challenges, knowledge exchange and more.

This diversity, with the whole more than the sum of the parts, is at the heart of the UKRI vision. We can simplify, but we must not homogenise. UKRI is about harnessing the power of diversity, not crushing it.

There is concern about scarcity of resources. I have heard many convincing arguments for better funding for particular disciplines, sectors, regions or career stages. But the assumption that this is a zero-sum game is much less convincing. Looking back at my application letter for this job, I wanted to shift the debate on from false dichotomies.

Blue skies vs applied research, or excellence vs place-based investment should, I wrote, “be replaced by a collective resolve to build an integrated system through which people and ideas move freely, with each part benefitting from and supporting the others. This requires a focus on true diversity and connectivity.”

The past year has reinforced my conviction that this is the right path. We must focus on growing the pie from 1.7 per cent of GDP spent on R&D to 2.4 per cent and beyond, rather than redistributing what we have now. This is the investment that will drive the innovative, productive economy of the future, unlocking virtuous cycles of long-term, multisector, stable public and private funding for research and innovation.

With public sector borrowing at record levels, and many compelling calls on the public purse, it will not be easy to achieve. But a year into the job, I am more committed than ever to working to make the case as strong as possible. We must build a system in which everyone can participate and from which everyone benefits. 

Ottoline Leyser is the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight