With a new Prime Minister, new Government department restructures, the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill and Brexit, there is a lot of change around the corner for universities and research.
Now that responsibility for higher education has been transferred to the Department for Education, whilst research and science are under the remit of the newly named Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, there are concerns that universities and research and science will become unaligned. The government has attempted to dilute some of these fears by ensuring that the Minister of State for Universities and Science, which is still held by Jo Johnson MP, jointly looks after both universities and science across both government departments.
In addition, leaving the European Union has already sparked concerns for the higher education sector, and in particular for research. On the 25th July Jo Johnson MP attended the European Science Open Forum in Manchester. He spoke of reports that UK participants are being asked not to lead or participate in Horizon 2020 project bids and went on to reassure that the UK remains an EU member during the 2-year renegotiation period, which includes the rights and obligations that derive from this. He also stated that the UK remains fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU.
Concerns among the sector are still very much present, the Times Higher Education reported worries around possible changes to the way the European Research Council (ERC) could distribute funds. Currently, money is distributed on the basis of excellence, meaning the UK does comparably well in relation to other EU nations, however this could change after Brexit if the ERC decided to run a more redistributive approach- rather than excellence focused. Additionally, the Guardian found cases of British academics being asked to leave EU funded projects or to step down from leadership roles because they are considered a financial liability.
The second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill also touched on the implications of leaving the EU. Jo Johnson MP said that he is working closely with Brussels, and is grateful to the commitment of his European counterparts that the UK will not be discriminated against. Justine Greening, the new Secretary of State for Education confirmed that the new UK Research and Innovation body (UKRI), which will see the research councils being grouped together, is critical in providing a unified voice to represent the interests of research and innovation when negotiating our new relationship with the EU.
The Higher Education and Research Bill has also prompted concerns around Innovate UK, with the Bill controversially proposing it is included in the new UKRI. This change has not gone unnoticed and the The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recently ran an inquiry into the implications. The committee has informed the government that the plans to incorporate Innovate UK into UKRI are “wrong and endanger its important business-facing focus.” The inquiry argues that innovation is not a linear process and merging Innovate UK with UKRI runs the risk of linking innovation with science and research too formally. The inquiry is currently waiting for a reply from the Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson MP.
In addition, the outcome of Lord Stern’s review of the REF has been published. The report sets out 12 recommendations for the REF, but broadly supports the REF as a way to deliver quality-related research funding. You can view my previous blog post about this here.