Tuesday, 5 November 2019

In Conversation with John Kingman

Leach and Kingman: a masterclass in body language
John Kingman is one of the most powerful figures in UK research. After all, he was the man who appointed the '£6 million man', Mark Walport. He is the non-executive chair of UKRI.

At Wonkfest this year, Kingman spoke to Mark Leach about UKRI, working with the government, the REF and post-Brexit life.


The first 18 Months of UKRI 

UKRI was established in response to the Nurse Review, which Kingman described as 'a pretty good account of what we're trying to achieve' in bringing together the research councils, Innovate UK and Hefce (now Research England).

There was a worry at the time, he said, that doing so would 'infantalise' the research councils, and that they wouldn't be able to get people to be chief executives of the individual councils. The recruitment of the four CEOs since UKRI began was a demonstration that these worries were unfounded.

2.4% Target 

Nevertheless, he recognised that the organisation did have challenges. Core funding 'has been held pretty tight,' he suggested, 'and this does have consequences for the system.' He saw the widely-trumpeted target to increase UK funding on research and development to 2.4% of GDP as a 'stretch target, but not necessarily a crazy one.'

He emphasised that the target was for the economy as a whole, and two thirds of R&D happens in the private sector. Using public money to 'crowd in' private investment was a sound policy, he said. 

There was lots of potential, he suggested, but 'context matters'. The current government had clearly embraced the 2.4% target, and the opposition had committed to significant backing for research too. 'We should be very pleased about this strong cross-party consensus,' he said.

Brexit 

Inevitably: Brexit. UKRI was ready to administer the Government's promise to underwrite any UK involvement in European funding. Chris Skidmore, the Minister for Universities, Sciences and R&I, had made it clear that he wanted the UK to be as involved in future European schemes as possible. Although Kingman couldn't say how this will 'play out,' he would be arguing strongly for UK science, and was already 'heavily involved' in policy discussions.

However, he was more circumspect about how - and what form - wider international engagement should take. 'We've got to think hardheadedly,' he said, 'and consider what benefits will come from any links we make.' There should not just be memoranda of understanding and photo calls just for the sake of it.

Darpa 

In the Queen's Speech there had been an announcement that the Government would be launching a UK equivalent of the US Darpa agency. Darpa had already been an inspiration for UKRI. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, for instance, with its defined challenges and challenge directors, was 'consciously modelled' on Darpa.

But was the announcement a sign that No 10 was wanting to take more control of research funding? Kingman demured. 'I see this as part of a wider jigsaw,' he said. 'It implies very significant support for R&D, and Darpa is just one pot. It should be wholeheartedly welcomed.'

Research careers 

Developing the next generation of researcher was, said Kingman, a priority for UKRI. Those working in science are pressured to deliver results quickly. To do so, 'we need incredibly talented people...and we need to worry about people as much as money'.

 UKRI was actively considering how best to encourage and support early career researchers (ECRs), but there was a need to ensure that research (and particularly the sciences) are seen as a positive option by people before they leave school. There was the allied issue of equality, diversity and inclusivity. Kingman recognised that there was much to do here, and that UKRI had 'to own it.'

REF 

Kingman moved on to considering the perennial question of whether the REF was the right mechanism for assessing research and deciding on the distribution of funding.

For him, there was still a srong case for the dual support system, regardless of the legal obligation to continue it, and that we 'shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket of project research.'

But was the allocation mechanism the right one? The REF provided 'powerful incentives,' and was being used to judge clever people, said Kingman. Clever people would always find ways of 'gaming' any system. 'But I would argue that research has benefitted from the REF/RAE as a system.' It's not perfect, he conluded, and it needs to continue to develop.

The Economic Benefit of Universities 

It was clear to Kingman that universities had a very positive effect on the economies of the cities in which they were situated. 'The public needs to understand [what a university brings], and politicians and policy makers need to recognise that, if you want a region to thrive, investing in universities is a good way of doing it.'

Neverthless he wasn't in favour of strongly prescriptive regional funding for research. UKRI should fund research wherever it was found. However, he recognised that the 'experiment' of the Strength in Places scheme had been useful.

He believed that there was a strong political consensus that the country needed to think about its economic assets, and for Kingsman universities were 'a really remarkable thing.' Any country other than the US 'would kill to have them.'

An upbeat assessment, then. But it was interesting that the only time he was thrown off balance in the interview was when there was a question from the floor about how - or if - UKRI would tackle the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. He gave no clear answer, and that it was probably someone else's problem. It's something I'll explore in a later post; for me it's an issue that will only get bigger and more pressing.

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