Research after the Reshuffle

Paul Nightingale
Jul 15, 2016 · 10 min read

The reshuffle of the last few days has fundamentally changed where research sits within the UK State. The old Department of Business Innovation and Skills that previously housed research is no more. Higher education has moved into Education, under Justine Greening, and research has moved into a new Ministry of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), headed by Greg Clark. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been closed. Currently it is unclear what will happen to the Science Minister.

[Updating: we now know that Jo Johnson has kept his job as Science Minister, and will work with both the department of Education and BEIS. This is a positive appointment, which provides the missing link I highlighted below.]

While the first day of the reshuffle, and particularly the appointment of prominent BREXIT supporters to senior roles, caught most media attention, the second day’s changes reflect a quiet revolution that has been underway for a while. These changes are not political manoeuvrings done in a rush, or a knocked-together plan by a politician who found themselves Prime Minister sooner than expected. Instead, they reflect a thoughtful and well-designed attempt to realistically deal with the position the UK finds itself in. The UK science and research are going to need to adjust to their new reality.

Climate Change

A large, and potentially worrying, change is the loss of a department with Climate Change in its title. It is not surprising that many environmentalists have expressed concern. My view is that this is a positive move.

The problem with Climate Change policy, from a science-policy perspective, is that it has been captured by a debate around scientific uncertainty. It is not clear that we should be paying as much attention as we do to questions about whether a rise in temperature is 4.0° or 4.2°. We have limited understanding of cloud cover, so, so what? It is even less clear why the debate should be conducted in public between a clear scientific consensus and swivel-eyed deniers (shame on you BBC). The key issue, surely, is what do we do about it, and how to do get it done?

The UK government has a legally binding plan to deal with climate change. It is centred around the decarbonisation of the energy and transport systems. This transition of hugely complex socio-technical systems that are deeply embedded in our economy and society is a major task. Solutions will not be found without significant industrial engagement, as major innovations in technology, architectures and business models are required and innovation is something that happens in firms. Hence, doing something about climate change requires Government engaging with industry, and the move to the new department is potentially a step in the right direction as it improves this engagement.

However, the loss of the name in the departmental title is a concern, as it could indicate a lack of prioritisation of what (for me at least) is one of the top two challenges that will face this government. However, the Prime Minister has indicated that climate change policy is unchanged. Had the department been given to a Minister who was either a climate change denier, or someone without the capability to handle the challenge, I would be concerned. But the new Minister, Greg Clark is highly capable and is regarded as a safe pair of hands by civil servants. He has a PhD from LSE (no mean feat). Its title, “The effectiveness of incentive payment systems: an empirical test of individualism as a boundary condition” gives an indication of the post-Thatcher One-Nation Conservatism of its author.

The other reason for feeling positive about this move is more subtle. Innovation in energy systems, particularly innovations that move towards low and zero carbon outcomes are more on the Development side of R&D than on the Research side. This isn’t an area where some magic technology that will solve all the world’s Climate Change problems just emerges in a lab. Instead, major problems need to be addressed at a systems level as production scales up. Key technical challenges, that often require research to solve, emerge as systems grow and interact with other large technical systems (i.e. innovations in transport systems place new demands on energy systems). These inter-dependencies (and hence the experiments needed to understand them), typically take place at the City level.

The problems of Climate Change aren’t therefore going to be solved by large scale, top-down State-planning. Instead, they are going to require a portfolio of local experiments. The problems of London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Stoke will overlap but also differ. The key policy issue is to reduce the costs, risks and time taken for experiments, and transfer knowledge from city to city. Greg Clark has played a key role in driving the devolution agenda (he was previously Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) which is based on giving local cities the power to experiment and exploit local knowledge. He is therefore uniquely placed to help manage this shift.

So on Climate Change, the move is positive, the appointment is positive, but there is concern that dropping the name may reflect a lack of emphasis. Overall 8/10

Higher Education

The big change for Universities is the move of HE out of BIS and into Education. The separation of University teaching in the Department of Education and University research in the new BEIS is not an organisational outcome that is necessarily good for Universities. In a perfect world the three main activities that are undertaken in Universities — teaching, research and engagement — would be under the same roof. The fact they are split suggests that the power of the Science Lobby has declined. It was significant enough to protect research spending during a period of extended austerity but may not be as strong as it once was.

While the change might shock the science lobby, it reflects a shift in priorities and a recognition that innovation is much larger than science (and significantly larger than the science that is undertaken in Universities) and draws on a broader range of skills. The current production of skills in the UK is unbalanced and often disconnected, reflecting a political system biased away from the needs of the poor. Given the new emphasis on producing an education system that works for all, rather than just the few, one might expect to see a much closer link between what happens in universities and the wider skills and education agenda in the future.

We can also expect more emphasis on improving the access disadvantage communities have to university. While some universities have worked hard to reach out to non-traditional students, levels of engagement have not been good enough to reduce structural problems in education. Bringing education together provides a way of implementing policies to join up skills provision and hopefully improve outcomes.

A key teaching issue for Universities, given their current economic conditions, will be the ability to continue to access and support EU students. Foreign students are an easy target for politicians wanting to reduce immigration. The appointment of Greening is encouraging for Universities as she was a prominent pro-REMAIN campaigner. She spent the evening before the referendum outside East Putney tube station handing out leaflets, and helped Wandsworth deliver a strong pro-REMAIN vote. I should declare an interest as she is my local MP. It is likely that the Universities will have a strong voice representing their concerns in any BREXIT negotiations. For those worried that the division between Education and BEIS reflects a downplaying of science, it is worth remembering that Greening previously worked for GSK, so knows about its value.

So overall, the splitting of University activity between two departments is not ideal, but reflects a realistic change in their role and the greater importance of other priorities. On teaching the University system now has a Minister who was highly effective in International Development, with a clear remit to improve access and better integrate University education with the wider education and skills agenda. Overall 7.5/10

[Updating: the re-appointment of Jo Johnson as Science Minister addresses part of my concern about the co-ordination problems involved in splitting University teaching activity and research activity. Johnson is a Europhile, highly experienced, and an excellent (and obvious) choice for the role. So I’d up my overall score to 8/10]

Science and Innovation Policy

Science and research in the UK will experience considerable change following the reorganisation. But this change is part of a continuous evolution of science policy from the consensus established by David Sainsbury. The changes announced this week fit with the ongoing reorganisation of the Research Councils, and help to better align the University system with the existing implicit industrial strategy of the UK. Industrial Strategy never went away, but was just largely unspoken when Sajid Javid was in charge of BIS.

It is important not to be misled by the term Industrial Strategy in the new department’s name. It is likely to be more Jesse Norman than Joseph Stalin. It is likely to focus on making markets work better and improving productivity rather than developing infant industries or picking winners.

[Update: I wrote this before Jesse Norman was appointed to his position in BEIS working on industrial strategy. Needless to say I think its a very good appointment — he is highly capable (and wrote the best book on Burke since Conor Cruise O’Brien). But I can’t claim any particular insight or inside knowledge. If you say enough things, sometimes one will come true — monkeys and typewriters etc].

Innovate-UK will have a more natural home in BEIS than BIS, as it looks like innovation policy is less of a Cinderella to science policy than it was previously. As noted before, innovation is something that happens in firms, and the development of spin out technology from universities is a tiny part of what Innovate-UK should be doing. The recent internal reorganisation of Innovate-UK reflects a more realistic approach to its role, and this is now better aligned externally within the new Ministry.

As a result, we can expect to see more integration of research with the drivers of local and national economic growth. The productivity challenges the UK faces are extremely worrying for our ability to finance the future. The current organisational changes reflect an attempt to make local growth strategies more effective and move away from (often wasteful) EU funded activities. The fact that so many areas of the UK that received EU regeneration funding voted to leave, illustrates just how bad some of these local policies have been. Hopefully we will see the end to unrealistic plans to build international nano-tech or bio-tech clusters and more realistic support for growth and (more importantly) the diffusion of productivity raising innovations in these new strategies.

There are real concerns about capacity to deliver in this regard. The interdisciplinary space between the University and the economy is one where it has historically been difficult to build and maintain capacity. I would expect to see an announcement soon about what is going to be done to support interdisciplinary research. It can take years to build the skill sets that are required, and there are obvious concerns about who is going to do the training, who is going to pay for it, and who is going to provide an attractive career afterwards.

This emphasis on growth also raises concerns about a more instrumental approach to research that does away with the old Haldane Principle — where academics, rather than ministers, decide what gets funded. I think this concern is well founded. An argument can be made, and has been made, that the impact agenda requires critical voices, but the current position is uncertain.

An equally big concern relates to what the economic impact of the BREXIT vote means for research funding. There may be a desire for the University system to play a larger role in the changes we have discussed, but whether there is capacity, or the ability to pay to build new capacity, is another matter. If there is no new money, which is looking likely, then difficult decisions will need to be made.

[Update: with Jo Johnson in place, we can expect continuity in many elements of current policy. It is unclear what is happening with the Minister of Life Sciences, but my expectation is that this activity will be rolled into BEIS. There is a bit of a danger that this might be drawn back to wasteful regional ‘cluster’ policy if the biotech ‘greybeards’ get their way. Or, more hopefully, there will be better integration with the big charity funders and needs of global big pharma (and ideally {we live in hope} better integration with the NHS).]

So overall score, 8/10. [Updated to 8.5/10]

A clear pathway forward?

These changes are significant, but they are well thought through and reflect ongoing shifts in the research system and its links to the economy. Collaboration between pre and post 1992 universities to support local skill needs is also likely to be more of an issue in the future as the skills agenda is integrated into local growth plans. As part of this increased emphasis on growth (and productivity), we can expect closer interaction between universities, industry and the freed up Innovate-UK.

Universities will have to adapt to this new world, and lobby hard to have their voices heard in post-BREXIT negotiations. The networked and collaborative nature of modern research means it is misleading to even talk about UK science as something that is distinct from European science. Anything that disrupts free movement and collaboration has the potential to damage UK research.

There is also a significant lobbying effort to be under-taken to ensure continued UK access to key European funding schemes. Some of the large vanity projects are not a great loss, but ERC funding provides support for fundamental research that would be very difficult to replicate in the UK. Luckily there is a strong desire within the EU27 to keep the UK within the European research system. Leaving would damage UK science, but also severely damage EU science. The experience of the Swiss in having their access to H2020 programmes restricted by the EU during conflicts about free movement suggests we need to be careful to protect that access.

BREXIT has been a real shock for the University and wider research system. However, a vote to leave the EU is not a vote to leave the Single Market. And the vote was only advisory. There is a lot to play for in what the future brings. These recent changes suggest that there is coherent thinking and some positive changes. After recent events this is very welcome. The BREXIT vote, and the reshuffle and reorganisations that followed, is bringing greater attention to an ongoing quiet revolution that was already taking place. Whatever the future holds we still need to address Climate Change, low productivity, and disengagement with local communities. There are concerns but also real opportunities in confronting these challenges.


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