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Bill calling for change

Some observers say UK Research and Innovation should be made responsible for the management of large facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron.

A.P.S. (UK)/Alamy Stock Photo

A stronger voice for U.K. science—but at what cost?

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.”

Martin Rees, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and former president of the Royal Society, thinks the bill should be abandoned. “This is a controversial, unnecessary, and probably a damaging change,” he said at the SMC briefing. He thinks that high-profile advocacy for science could be accomplished through an advisory council instead. Reorganization of the research councils risks too much turmoil and an uncertainty, he argued. “That’s the last thing we need.” 

Nurse disagreed, saying that an advisory board wouldn’t be enough. “It’s good talking shop, but it’s not a substitute for what we need.” That, he explained, is a strong, independent voice that will be “powerful and cannot be ignored.” Nurse pointed out that advisory boards in the past have not convinced the government to increase overall funding of science: The U.K. government continues to spend 0.49% of gross domestic product on science, whereas the average across the European Union is 0.67%. “We have a strong prize to win here if we can get it right,” he said. Getting it right includes changes suggested by the Royal Society, such as specifying that the government must consult the research community before it makes further changes to the research councils.

A potential loss of autonomy, both for universities and the research councils, topped the list of concerns that Stephen Curry mentioned at the briefing. Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London and a board member of CaSE, said that the loss of royal charters would increase vulnerability to government meddling. “This is a new and unprecedented level of interference,” he said. “This is bad law.”

But Ottoline Leyser, a plant scientist at the University of Cambridge who participated in the Nurse review, is more concerned that the current arrangement of councils “Balkanizes the system” and forces research councils to compete with each other for funding. She supports the bill. “The good bits are sufficiently good that it should move forward,” said Leyser, who leads the Royal Society’s science policy advisory group. “The response we’re getting from government is very positive,” she added. “They’re not resistant to changing the bill.”  

The Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons will wrap up its work on 18 October and then send the bill to the House of Lords. Meanwhile, John Kingman, the interim director of UKRI, hopes to have a chief executive named by the end of the year, he told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee yesterday. The target date for officially starting UKRI is April 2018.

* Update, 18 October, 6:30 a.m.: The photo caption has been changed to clarify UKRI's role. The previous caption was not intended to imply that the Diamond Light Source synchrotron has been mismanaged.