51. Research strategy for funders

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is a key node in a complex UK – indeed international – research ecosystem.  It can offer strategic direction and for many it will a key funder.  How are the strategic priorities of an ecosystem categorised?  I am a researcher who has worked in a national Institute (today it is the Rutherford Lab) and as a university professor building research teams on Research Council grants.  I was a founder and director of a spin-out company, a university vice-chancellor, Chair of a Research Council and, currently, CEO of The Alan Turing Institute. In all these activities, there are common questions and challenges.  There is a need to acquire a knowledge of the current landscape, decisions on where to invest resources and on how to build capacity and skills.  There is also the question of how to connect a top-down strategy with bottom-up creativity.  All of these are challenges for UKRI.

Where are the potential game changers in research?  Some will be rooted in pure science, while others will be related to wider societal challenges, like curing cancer.  Another key consideration is where knowledge can be applied. That can be used as a working definition of ‘innovation’.

A systems view

So, how to set about answering these questions?  A systems perspective is nearly always valuable: what is the system of interest and how is it embedded in other systems?  Note that a systems perspective requires an interdisciplinary perspective. At what scale is the research to be focussed?  Any system of interest will in fact be embedded in a hierarchy of supra-systems and sub-systems. Recall the Brian Arthur argument:  most innovation comes from the lower reaches of the hierarchy; and what is more, these discoveries can often be transferred to other domains.  Take computers, for example: invented as calculating machines, now ubiquitous in a wide range of systems. Contributions to strategy can come top-down from institutions (reading the landscape and horizons scanning) or bottom-up from individual researchers.

Impact also plays an important part.  Does anyone want to do research that has no impact? I doubt it, but ‘impact’ should include transformative change in and across disciplines just as much as in industry and the public sector. Perhaps, we have been too narrow in our definition of impact.

Establishing a base

These challenges, questions and approaches have to be addressed at each node in the ecosystem.  Then the nodes must be effectively connected.  For example, money has to flow in the direction of the potential game-changers and the high impact innovations.  Each node, from the individual piece of research up to UKRI has to have a strategy, grounded in experience, but employing horizon scanning and imagination.

The ecosystem has not been functioning effectively for some time – notably in the transfer of research findings into industry and the public sector.  Herein lies a particular challenge for UKRI.  Its strategy has to: be open to the ‘bottom up’; incentivise Research Councils, Innovate UK, the universities, the Research Institutes and, not least, industry.  It needs to do all these things if it is to have a chance of delivering game-changers and ground-breaking innovations.

Building a strategy

To build an effective strategy, UKRI will have to:

  • identify and build on strengths and opportunities – both the people with track records and the early career researchers with skills, imagination and ambition – there is a top-down vs bottom-up aspect here;
  • find ways of avoiding the conservatism of peer review which is enforced by the Research Excellence Framework.  I believe that universities do not always provide the right incentives by insisting on both the volume of publication and focusing for promotion on ‘top journals’. This has skewed the motivation of researchers, particularly by neglecting applied research whose outputs do not qualify for the selected journals.

Industry has a role to play.  Where are the modern equivalents of Bell Labs? How much R&D is now being done in start-ups with the big players relying on purchasing success?  While there are many excellent examples of industry-university joint working, there could perhaps be many more.

Another strategic question which demands sensitive judgement relates to the size of research groups.  What should be located at the ‘big science’ end of the spectrum?  There are established successes, from CERN to Sanger; there are new Institutes like Turing and Diamond, with others in development.  Yet is the average size of a research group in a university too small?  Are there potential ‘big science’ areas that are not funded as such? Cities, for example, falls into this category.

Indeed, how do we value different fields of research for public funding? Health, education, justice – all are obviously important.  Basic research is needed to support future industrial development.  Should there be more applied research as well, both in industry or the public sector?

Radical shifts

In the 1950s, Warren Weaver was the Science Vice-President of the Rockefeller Foundation.  He argued that systems of interest fell into three categories, those:

  • that were simple;
  • of disorganised complexity;
  • of organised complexity.

Roughly speaking, the first two represented (among other things) the physical sciences of the time, while the third comprised biology.  He switched his funding from physics to biology.  That was a prescient decision. Is there an equivalent diagnosis to be made now?

UKRI’s strategy needs to be connected to the social questions of our time: climate change and sustainability; the future of work and incomes; growing social inequalities.  Does this agenda demand a Weaver-like shift?

While I have focussed on questions specifically relating to UKRI strategy, in reality, every element of the research ecosystem needs strategic thinking: from universities and institutes, through industry and Government Departments, to individual researchers.  All of it needs to be strongly connected to translational and development ecosystems.

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