CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—Combine U.S. agencies akin to the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities. Toss in some energy and innovation research and fuel it all with the largest boost in R&D spending in recent history. Then put one person in charge.
That's what the United Kingdom has done in a major reorganization of research funding that unites all the research councils that support U.K. science. The intent is to provide a strategic vision and voice for science, boost efficiency, foster interdisciplinary research, and—fingers crossed—kick-start an economy jeopardized by Brexit. "There is a lot to be hopeful for," says Sarah Main, executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London.
The new organization, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), officially opens 1 April. It is headed by Mark Walport, who led the Wellcome Trust research charity from 2003 to 2013 and then served as the government chief science adviser. John Kingman, a former senior civil servant at the treasury department who is experienced in research and innovation policy, is UKRI board chair. "It's a very powerful top team," says Kieron Flanagan, a science policy expert at The University of Manchester who spoke in a personal capacity because he is participating in a country-wide university strike over pension benefits.
One big question is to what extent UKRI leadership can help bring about a science-friendly outcome for Brexit negotiations, preserving collaborations and funding from Europe. Also unclear is how much autonomy the research councils will keep and whether UKRI will emphasize biomedical research and favor the "golden triangle" of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. The choice of immunologist Walport, 65, as the new CEO in February 2017 was well-received, but he is not commenting before the release of a general strategy, expected in May.
The reorganization has its roots in a 2015 review of the funding councils by biologist Paul Nurse, now head of The Francis Crick Institute in London, who argued that a unified organization with a high-profile leader could help win greater government support for science. His recommendations were included in a higher education reform law passed in May 2017. Lawmakers also placed Innovate UK, a government-funded organization designed to help business generate new technology, within UKRI.
The seven disciplinary councils will together continue to give out about £3 billion annually, mostly as peer-reviewed grants, while part of another council—now renamed Research England—will keep providing £3 billion in unrestricted grants to English universities. The latter funding, mostly awarded in proportion to universities' productivity and impact, can be used for infrastructure or operations in any field. (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales will keep their separate, smaller funding councils, independent of UKRI, as part of their devolved governments.) A new central fund outside the councils is intended to stimulate interdisciplinary research.
In a January lecture, Walport said early priorities include boosting international collaborations and stimulating growth in places that are lagging economically. Some observers hope he will also promote gender equality and diversity in the research community, and open-access publishing. "There is an opportunity to reset the agenda," says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist at Imperial College London. Walport launched an innovative open-access policy at the Wellcome Trust, and UKRI will soon review the councils' policies—which encourage and pay for open access immediately upon publication—including their cost-effectiveness.
UKRI starts with well-filled coffers. The government is giving it most of £4.7 billion in new science funding, ramping up over 4 years, as part of a new industrial strategy. In return, UKRI needs to generate economic benefits fast. "The organization will have to devise robust ways to get that money out the door in quite tight time scales," says physicist Richard Jones of The University of Sheffield. "I think that's going to be a real challenge."
Critics of the reform that led to UKRI didn't see the need for a new agency and worry about a loss of independence for the research councils. With so much power being concentrated, scientists could be left with little political recourse if they disagree with a major funding decision, Flanagan says. "UKRI will have a huge amount of freedom and autonomy with little oversight," he says.
The large proportion of life scientists and representatives of the research-rich southeast United Kingdom on the UKRI board also raises concerns. UKRI "has to convince the community that they represent all parts of our country and all parts of the scientific community," says Athene Donald, a physicist here at the University of Cambridge.
Ottoline Leyser, a plant scientist at the University of Cambridge, is optimistic that UKRI will listen to the research community. "We need to say what we want and say it in a positive way. The doors are open for that kind of input." Indeed, UKRI can only win over skeptics if it makes decisions transparently and with broad input from stakeholders, says James Wilsdon, a science policy expert at The University of Sheffield. "Until it's operational for a year or two," he says, "we won't really know how it's going to all work."
*Correction 22 March, 4:25 p.m.: The "facilities" portion of the graphic provided an incomplete description of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which funds grants in astronomy, particle and nuclear physics, and related technology.