Thursday 17 May 2018

What You Need to Know: the UKRI Strategic Prospectus

You will have read the Boiled down Basics on the Prospectus, but what’s it really about? Here are the seven take home points.

What the public wants: jetpacks, and lots of them
(photo: Samuel Johnson)
  1. It’s all about collaboration, stupid. UKRI, as a research supranational union, has to justify its existence. It does this by talking about how it will facilitate partnership, collaboration, and inter/multidisciplinary working. On p11 and p12 it repeats the idea four times in close succession: they will ‘work closely in partnership’, ‘[work] hand in hand,’ ‘work in partnership’, ‘work with stakeholders’. In fact, throughout the document stakeholders are mentioned 10 times, multi/interdisciplinary 12 times, community/communities 22 times, engage/ment 29 times, collaboration (and variations of) 48 times, and partner, partners and partnerships 51 times. The government, the public, other researchers, foreign researchers, foreign public...we’ll work with you all.
  2. But mainly it’s about collaboration with industry, stupid. If you think that’s a lot of repetition, you ain’t heard nothing yet. ‘Business’ is mentioned 81 times, and ‘innovation’ 225 times. Getting researchers to engage with industry, and for industry to benefit, is core to UKRI’s mission. Its primary function may be ‘pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding,’ but the unspoken (or often, frankly, spoken) subclause is ‘as long as it benefits UK industry.’
  3. Haldane’s important. Sort of. Although the Haldane Principle was enshrined in the legislation that underpins the establishment of UKRI, and much is made of its importance (p17, 21 and 36), it also wants to ‘ensure that UKRI’s investments link up effectively with Government department’s research priorities and opportunities’ (p22). It will also ‘work with the Government Office for Science and other departments to have the most influence and impact’ (p39). And, of course, it loves its themes and strategic priorities. Don’t forget those. This all sounds like it’s sailing perilously close to what Haldane was wanting to avoid (although his intention is moot). This was summarised succinctly in 1964 by Quentin Hogg: “responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research...through an independent council of industrialists, scientists and other eminent persons and not directly by a government department itself.”
  4. It loves dual support, but won’t just leave it alone. “The success of UK research is built on the dual support system [and] this will continue,” states the Prospectus (p22). The eulogy continues on p23, but is then brought up short with the final paragraph: “We need to take an evidence-based approach and are therefore undertaking work to analyse and understand what constitutes reasonable balance [between the two parts of the system], and the impact that any changes to the balance could have on the sector. We will continuously build our evidence, responding to new challenges, opportunities and wider changes in the sector to provide the best advice on future funding decisions.' So expect some changes and adjustments, which may not be comfortable.
  5. It’s got a ‘Martini attitude’ to international links: any time, any place, any where. In our post-Brexit world there’s a certain needy desperation in the Prospectus’ trumpeting of ‘Global Britain’ (p50). There’s GCRF and Newton, of course, and it does plaintively say it will support the government in staying in Horizon Europe. But they’re also saying that, as well as the EU and ODA-compliant countries, we’ll partner with pretty much anyone else, with a new Fund for International Collaboration (p51). If you’ll have us, we’ll have you.
  6. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Given recent events, there’s a rather alarming strain of populism in the Prospectus. It’s offering funding for research projects ‘that place citizen participation at their heart’ (p39), and wants to ‘identify and tackle the complex societal challenges that matter most to people, in partnership with them,’ as well as to ‘work closely with the public to identify their concerns and aspirations’ (p36). Get ready for X Factor style votes and user surveys, hopefully resulting in jetpacks and flying cars all round.
  7. It’s going to be busy with paperwork. It promises seven strategies, policies, reviews and roadmaps. That's an awful lot of paper, and will keep us busy with 'what you need to knows' for some time to come.

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