Policy Update – September 2023

Ed Bridges, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Academy of Social Sciences 

DSIT report

After six months of existence, the summer has been a welcome time to reflect on the work of the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology. A recent article for Research Professional (£) provided mixed reviews, acknowledging the higher profile it has afforded to research within government, but at the same time questioning whether it has engaged effectively outside of Whitehall. A case in point, and an obvious early test of DSIT’s influence, will be on Horizon where the research sector has spoken unequivocally about the need for sustained association but DSIT has been tasked with spearheading the UK Government’s backup option, Pioneer. For the social sciences, DSIT’s foregrounding of STEM is also a concern – the department’s Science & Technology Framework has not yet been matched by an equivalent sense of purpose or ambition for other parts of the research community. With a likely UK General Election next year, it is an open question as to whether DSIT in its current form will survive a change of government.

Research & Development targets

Alongside DSIT’s interim report (as outlined above), are real concerns about the extent to which the UK Government is meeting or building upon its Research and Development (R&D) targets. The UK Government’s science department claims to have met its target of increasing R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP, based on revised estimates from the Office for National Statistics. But the centre-right think tank Onward has argued in a new report that a new R&D target should be set and the department be “unleashed” from Treasury bureaucracy. Not wanting to be left out, centrist thinktank the Social Market Foundation released its own new briefing urging UKRI to adopt “innovative approaches” to tackle the UK’s reproducibility and productivity crisis. It argues that funding mechanisms should be diversified by focussing on people instead of projects and giving reviewers “golden tickets” to fund radical ideas, warning that falling research productivity means the UK is getting “less bang for our buck”.

Other news in brief

  • UKRI job cuts: UKRI announced their intention to reduce staff numbers by 17% by 2025. The agency has been under pressure to reduce headcount in the wake of an independent review in 2022 by former Cardiff University vice-chancellor David Grant, who identified inefficiencies in UKRI’s central corporate hub. In response, UKRI vowed to reduce its operational expenditure from £291 million in 2022-23 to £220m by 2024-25.
  • Structural funding gap for UK universities: A new report from National Centre for Universities and Business found that the end of EU structural funding poses a risk to the financial sustainability of UK universities. NCUB figures showed that European Regional Development Funds brought £812m in income to 124 UK universities between 2014 and 2022 – but this funding will come to an end this year due to Brexit. This income was used to fund several activities, including engagement with businesses, R&D processes and provision of research infrastructure, technology transfer as well as support for entrepreneurship and social innovation.