LONDON—Who would be the most effective advocate for scientists at a time of desperate uncertainty over future budgets and the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union? To Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute here, the answer is clear: a preeminent scientist who would oversee £6 billion in research funding. A bill now before Parliament would create this position by combining the bulk of government science spending into a new organization called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It’s a controversial proposal, so the Science Media Centre (SMC) gathered proponents and critics for a press briefing here this morning to lay out their cases.
The Higher Education and Research Bill, which was introduced in May, would make the biggest changes to the university sector in decades, creating an Office for Students that would regulate universities and remove their royal charters, which have been seen as a guarantor of their independence from government interference. As for research, the changes largely follow recommendations from a review of the funding councils, undertaken last year by Nurse. The bill creates UKRI as a body over the seven existing research councils, which collectively distribute about £3 billion a year in funding. UKRI would also absorb parts of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which hands out another £3 billion in block grants to English universities. In addition, UKRI would take in Innovate UK, which has invested £1.8 billion in business since 2007 to stimulate innovation. As with universities, the bill would remove the royal charters for the research councils, making it easier for government to change, dissolve, or create funding councils.
Opinions are divided about the bill. In July, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) brought together more than 40 organizations to examine the bill. Most participants thought the bill should be improved rather than ditched. Last week, however, an editorial in Nature strongly opposed the bill and called on scientists to join the debate. “If its proposals become law, the government will upend globally accepted norms that protect independence and self-determination in science and higher education. If scientists and their representative organizations don’t want that to happen, they need to speak up—and do it now.”