Our Response to the Government’s R&D Roadmap Consultation
In July 2020 the government published its Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap. This set out the UK’s vision and ambition for science, research and innovation.
In publishing the Roadmap, the government sought the views of the sector through a consultation that posed eight questions.
This is Eastern Arc’s response to these questions.
Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
Summary: although it may be counter-intuitive, the government should not concentrate its funding on a small number of large projects, but rather fund a wider range of smaller projects, and pay particular attention to the work of mid-career researchers.
This is the fundamental question at the heart of all research funding: how do we ensure that investments in research have the greatest effect?
In 2016 Michael Lauer, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Deputy Director for Extramural Research, attempted to identify the most productive use of its funding by looking for a correlation between the amount of funding a project had received and the number of citations it got. This he described as “citations per dollar”.
Lauer’s analysis suggested that there was some correlation between the amount of funding a project received and the resultant citations, up to a point. For non-human NIH-funded studies, this was around the $1 million mark. After that it tailed off markedly.
Given this, and the fact that it was almost impossible to predict where breakthroughs in science were going to happen, Lauer concluded that ‘the best way to maximise the chance of such extreme transformative discoveries is…to do all we can to fund as many scientists as possible.’
Although large ‘moonshots’ are important to galvanise and coordinate efforts in a particular area, and to ‘inspire a whole new generation of scientists’ (question 8), there is a real danger of investing heavily in a few areas that are decided centrally. As Fortis and Currie (2013) found, ‘impact is a decelerating function of grant size.’
It may seem counterintuitive to provide a large number of smaller investments than a small number of larger ones. However,as Jon Lorsch, the Director of the US National Institute of General Medical Sciences, wrote: ‘it is impossible to know where or when the next big advances will arise, and history tells us that they frequently spring from unexpected sources. It is also impossible to know what threads of foundational knowledge will be woven together to produce a new breakthrough. Supporting a wide variety of lines of inquiry will improve the chances of important discoveries being made.’
Eastern Arc is supportive of this approach. In addition, it would encourage the government to look at investing more in mid-career researchers. An analysis of 2,000 twentieth century Nobel prize winners and other notable scientists found that the age at which most had their breakthrough ideas was between 34 and 39, although this differs markedly depending on the field.
Nevertheless, the principle still stands: there’s a lack of funding directed specifically at those who have established themselves, but haven’t yet got the profile where management and other demands distract from their primary research. A stronger concentration of funding on this age group offers the opportunity to make a significant difference.
Summary: Impact can take many forms, but crucial to them all is a close working relationship between those undertaking the research and those who will benefit from it. The government should concentrate on the exchange of tacit knowledge through launching and expanding a portfolio of schemes (such as exchanges and mentoring) and designing infrastructure (such as shared facilities) that would enable this to happen.
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) defines impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’.
For us, there is a single underlying principle that is important for all types of impact: a close working relationship – and ideally co-creation – between those undertaking the research and those who will benefit from the findings of it.
Reed et al (2013) set out the key principles underlying this. They include appropriate and systematic representation of stakeholders in research where possible, the development of long-term relationships, two-way dialogue, flexibility, monitoring, reflection, refinement, and a legacy beyond the initial funding.
Alegre et al (2018) go further and distinguish between the exchange of explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is formal, codified, easily understood and clearly transmitted; tacit knowledge is nuanced, subtle, complex and relational. Their empirical study – the first of its kind – concludes that ‘the use of tacit knowledge makes value creation and innovation more likely.’
Explicit knowledge is still important, they suggest, ‘but results show that its use is more connected to operational issues and is, therefore, less likely to create value. Again, managers [should] pay special attention to tacit knowledge and, therefore, to the human side of innovation.’
We would, then, encourage the exchange of tacit knowledge as an essential foundation for maximising impact, encouraging innovation, and using knowledge to its greatest effect.
To do so the five paradoxes of knowledge exchange (Mabey and Zhao 2016) need to be addressed. These were identified through their study of ATLAS, ‘the world’s largest R&D collaboration.’
- The more knowledge is formally managed, the less likely effective knowledge exchange will occur
- The more democratic knowledge‐exchange is desired, the more intentional leadership is required
- The more knowledgeable professionals are, the less likely they are able to lead
- The more pervasive the technologies for knowledge exchange, the more isolated knowledge specialists can become
- The more informal that knowledge exchange is, the more likely it is that discrimination will occur
The authors’ suggested solutions to these may be difficult to replicate on a large scale, but that does not mean that they shouldn’t be attempted. Intractable problems require solutions that are both simple in principle but complex in practice.
The investment needed for this depends on the ambition underlying it. It may be significant – such as designing infrastructure that encourages spontaneous, serendipitous conversations and a sense of community – or relatively modest, such as launching and expanding schemes that facilitate exchange, mentoring and embedding of researchers and stakeholders in each other’s environments.
Summary: Research-based innovation is an important facet of impact and a crucial avenue to the realisation of ‘change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life’. As such the government should undertake a review of the existing culture around the way grants are assessed and structured, and ensure that regional bodies are empowered to oversee the appropriate development of industry within their areas.
Innovation has a clear and discrete set of challenges and opportunities. The Manufacturing Commission’s report, Level Up Industry, made seven recommendations that addressed these. Although focused primarily on manufacturing, we believe they offer a good framework for the government’s actions in encouraging innovation, and ensuring it is used to greatest effect.
Primarily, there is a need to give businesses the certainty to invest for the long-term. With the twin seismic changes of coronavirus and Brexit, business needs assurance that policy (and associated funding) will not shift under its feet.
Leading on from this, there should be more devolution and autonomy to the regions to enable local enterprise partnerships to assess and exploit synergies and intra-regional opportunities for collaboration and growth. SMEs should play a key part in this: they make up 99 per cent of businesses in the UK, and their involvement is therefore crucial.
We are supportive of the higher and degree apprenticeships programme, and see it as a necessary and important framework through which local industry can develop the skills they need for their business.
However, we would also emphasise the need to provide short courses that respond to the needs of business. Our universities have demonstrated their agility in adapting to external needs and drivers by developing online provision in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and we would want to ensure that such agility is fully utilised in skills provision.
More broadly, the government needs to ensure that the appropriate infrastructure, especially digital provision, is fit for purpose and available right across the UK.
Financial support for innovation is a perennial issue, and has been highlighted again recently in the annual UK Innovation Survey. To help to overcome this, we would suggest that the current paradigm for R&D funding needs to shift away from a predominant focus solely on research.
Historically, decisions on funding are made by academics and for academics. There needs to be more involvement of those outside of academia in making decisions, with a balance that goes beyond the nominal commercial representative on grant-making panels. Moreover, any barrier to involving non-academics in projects should be removed, including the reimbursement of salary costs.
Finally, we wish to emphasise that the arts, humanities and social sciences play an important part in R&D, and should not be excluded in the future development of the roadmap. The recent response to Covid, for instance, has shown that the behavioural sciences play a crucial role in ensuring our safety and resilience in the face of the infection.
Summary: in order to attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people, the current ‘toxic’ environment needs to be overhauled. As the Wellcome Trust puts it, we need to ‘reimagine’ research. The government should consider formal training for managers, a clear roadmap for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, and awarding funding to groups rather than individuals.
We welcome the Roadmap’s recognition that ‘some parts of R&D exhibit features of an unhealthy work culture, including evidence of bullying, harassment and discrimination.’
The Roadmap mentions the important work that the Wellcome Trust has done in highlighting this issue. Its report in January stated that, ‘with the constant pressure to secure grant funding and rolling employment contracts, respondents often said that rivalry and competition over scarce resources made working environments toxic and led to people stepping on one another to get to the top.
‘Interviewees often said that key stakeholders in the sector—government, publishers, funders and institutions—were increasingly risk averse and only interested in short-term gains.’
It is essential that we change this culture. In recognition of this, Eastern Arc hosted one of nine national workshops run by the Wellcome Trust to discuss its findings with the sector and to take the initiative forward. We will continue to play an active part in this, and we are already putting in place actions to overcome this ‘toxic’ environment.
Our second strategic objective focuses on supporting experimental, risk-taking activity, and this includes putting in place a cross-institutional mentoring system, so that researchers and academics at all levels can get objective support in identifying and tackling issues they face.
But this is just a first step. To significantly change the culture and attract, retain and develop people to R&D, the government must be proactive. Actions may include:
- Training for principal investigators (PIs). In the Wellcome report, 80 per cent of managers had confidence in their ability to manage, yet only 48 per cent had received any training to do so. However, training should not just be a one-off session or even a series of events. Rather, it should be more supportive and continuous mentoring and coaching.
- Monitoring of a PI’s performance in supporting early career researchers (ECRs) and others. If it is found to be poor, restricting the PI from accessing future funding.
- A whistle-blowing process to enable those who are victims of bullying to report their experiences.
- A more structured and clear roadmap for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers, in line with Vitae’s researcher development framework.
More significantly, the government should consider an alternative structure for awarding grants. Standard funding grants tend to replicate and entrench existing power dynamics. Funding goes to an individual, who then has the power over the work and career of those in their team. The government should consider giving group grants to mitigate the worst effects of this. Alternatively, it should consider making the appointment of a non-academic manager, responsible for career development and line management, a requirement of large grants.
Summary: EARC welcomes the government’s intention to ‘level up’ investment across the UK, but the current landscape at subregional level needs to be fully understood to identify areas of need (and areas of potential) across the UK.
Eastern Arc welcomes the government’s intention to ‘examine how R&D funding as a whole can best be distributed across the country to help level up every region and nation of the country,’ and we agree with the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) that ‘public investment is likely to be even more crucial’ after the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, we are somewhat concerned that it appears to define the ‘golden triangle’ regionally rather than institutionally as ‘London, the South East and the East of England’, not the six institutions that traditionally make up the triangle.
Such an examination needs to be granular, and careful in differentiating significant variations within regions. This was recognised by Nesta in its report, The Missing £4 Billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK, which broke UK R&D funding down into subregions. Within regions of prosperity, there are areas that need additional investment. Conversely, within regions of relative under-investment there are areas (or institutions) that don’t need any further funding, and are as prosperous as the most affluent elsewhere.
As with the Research Excellence Framework, the government’s place agenda should ensure ‘that excellent research continues to be well supported wherever it is found,’ and not just in the larger institutions. Eastern Arc endorses CaSE’s recommendations that ‘investment should be focussed on R&D excellence that already exists – even if it is small and nascent’, and that ‘places should clarify their distinctive strengths and sectors.’
The government should work with Research England and Innovate UK, together with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), to undertake a comprehensive study on a subregional basis to identify areas that are underperforming in terms of investment, but are punching above their weight in terms of excellence.
In parallel with this, it should work with the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) to further understand how universities connect with their cities and their regions, and how they can be the catalyst for regional development and growth.
Universities are crucial to regional economies. In 2017/18, the Eastern Arc universities collectively secured £35m in funding from businesses and other external organisations for consultancy, continuing professional development and other services. In the same year, our three universities hosted more than 2.3m visitors for public lectures, performances and exhibitions.
As an example of the benefit brought by our universities to the region, independent consultants calculated that the gross value added (GVA) generated by UEA, Essex and Kent was over £2.4bn.
We would caution against ‘an ambitious new Place Strategy in the autumn after the Spending Review’, but rather take time to understand the needs and potential of the subregions before putting in place a structured framework of support.
Summary: Eastern Arc is supportive of the work currently being undertaken to support the development and funding of infrastructure, but would encourage the government to consider smaller, more agile funding for regional consortia to open up access to their existing equipment and resources. It should also support the crucial national infrastructure around ‘open science’.
Eastern Arc recognises the considerable work that has been undertaken by UKRI and others in identifying current research infrastructure, and how it should grow in the medium to long-term. It is supportive of the establishment of the Infrastructure Advisory Committee (IAC), and the breadth of its remit.
We believe that this is the right direction to be taking for future investment in research infrastructure. However, we would caution and advise the government to take note of the needs and potential of the regions and subregions of the UK, identified through the Place Strategy, when making further investments.
In addition, we would encourage the government to provide support for cross-institutional sharing of the research infrastructure that exists within individual universities. A number of regional consortia have identified equipment that could be shared, but there has been relatively little subsequent activity in this area.
Support for this activity would enable wider access and use of existing infrastructure at relatively little cost. Funding could include travel and subsistence costs, replacement teaching costs, technical training, reagents and other consumables, and access fees.
To simplify the process, the funding should take the form of a ‘block grant’ to a regional consortium (such as Eastern Arc, N8, GW4 or Midland Innovation) to administer, based on the equipment available and the capacity it has to be used by others.
Furthermore, this could be extended to encourage the sharing of equipment between regional consortia, enabling a more ‘joined up’ – or ‘levelled up’ – national provision.
The overall grants would be small when compared to those provided for new equipment, but they would have a significant impact, helping to move the centre of gravity for strategic, large equipment away from the traditional metropolitan hubs by removing a significant barrier to access.
In addition, the government should support the less visible but crucial national infrastructure on open research and innovation. This includes, but is not limited to open access, open data, and interoperability. Not only would this be more efficient, it would help with issues covered by other questions, such as impact (Q2), innovation (Q3) and engagement (Q8).
Summary: EARC is supportive of the substantive findings of the Smith-Reid review, and would encourage the government to develop ‘an immediate programme to protect and stabilise capabilities’ following Brexit.
Although the Roadmap offered the first official signal that the government wants ‘to fully associate to [EU R&D] programmes’, subsequent negotiations have suggested that the cost of doing so is prohibitive.
If we are not to be part of the next framework programme (Horizon Europe), we should think carefully about how we do engage globally, in Europe and beyond.
The Smith-Reid Review was ‘not convinced that a persuasive case can be made for sizeable levels of public spending on activities that replicate, line by line, EU research and innovation arrangements in the UK.’
However, as Wellcome has stated, ‘there are no quick and cheap ways to replace Horizon Europe. Implementing new multilateral or bilateral programmes at short notice will likely mean compromising on ambition, efficiency, and scale.’
Nevertheless, Eastern Arc is supportive of the Review’s recommendation that ‘the UK could spend the same amount of money on research and innovation activities, optimised around the interests of the UK rather than the collective interests of EU programme participants.’
It also strongly endorses the Review’s view that there should be as little disruption as possible to existing projects and funding, and that there be ‘an immediate programme to protect and stabilise capabilities’.
In particular, EARC would support the Review’s recommendations for:
- An international Research Partnership Investment Fund. Smith-Reid suggested that the RPIF be expanded to encourage additional matched funding, attracting ‘sizeable investment into UK R&D by companies headquartered in other countries.’
- A coherent global talent strategy. This would bring both reforms to immigration policy and a number of fellowship and post graduate programmes to try and attract and retain good researchers in the UK. EARC is pleased to see that the government has started to make moves in this direction.
- Substantial additional funding for basic research. Although Smith-Reid weren’t prescriptive, EARC is supportive of additional funding being provided through UKRI for international programmes.
- A flagship programme of fellowships. With UK-based researchers no longer being able to access the prestigious and generous European Research Council, the government should consider a significant fellowship scheme that ‘should be available at all career stages.’
In addition, EARC is supportive of more flexibility in future funding for global research, such as additional QR funding, and ‘agility funding’ for emerging areas of importance.
However, although the Roadmap seeks ‘to strengthen and grow our collaborations with overseas governments and international funders’, we are concerned that support for programmes that are aimed at collaborations with DAC list countries is somewhat lukewarm – or rather, that it is more encouraging of developing links with those countries that already have strong research infrastructures.
The recently announced plans to merge DfID and the Foreign Office heighten these concerns. We believe that there is a danger that UK global research funding becomes transactional, and is used for national benefit rather than global good.
Summary: EARC supports the government’s wish to excite and inspire the next generation of researchers and innovators. However, it is concerned that specifying that its moonshots should ‘help solve an important scientific issue’ may not be inspiring or creative – or indeed credible. Involving citizens and NGOs in the selection and monitoring of moonshots may help to overcome this.
Engaging people with research, exciting them, and inspiring ‘a whole new generation of scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers and innovators’ is no easy task.
The Roadmap makes much of ‘moonshots’, but it is honest in stating that they are yet to be identified. However, we are concerned that, as currently formulated, they are perhaps too transactional. One of the government’s seven central principles of a moonshot is very much a quid pro quo: it should ‘help solve an important societal issue.’
That’s entirely understandable: the government will be using taxpayers’ money, and it should be used towards a clear, defined, and beneficial end. However, as The Harvard Business Review put it, a moonshot should have three ingredients: it should inspire, it should be credible, and it should be imaginative. By putting ‘an important societal issue’ at their heart, the government is in danger of making moonshots neither inspirational nor imaginative.
Moreover, as Nature noted, ‘earthshots’ (i.e. those tackling a global societal issue) are more difficult and intractable than moonshots. Corporate expectation and political ideology together bring a heavy dose of realism to the dream.
It will, of course, be up to the ‘group of experts and stakeholders,’ convened to identify the focus of the moonshots, to ensure that they are inspirational and imaginative, and that, like the Apollo programme before it, they encourage half of the next generation of scientists and researchers into the profession.
However, involving and engaging the public and non-governmental organisations in this process will be crucial. There is a danger that those who are outside of research feel disenfranchised from the endeavour; involving them in defining problems, implementing solutions and monitoring progress will help to overcome this barrier, as Mariana Mazzucato of UCL suggested.