Pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding

Pushing the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding

Microscopic image of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Knowledge is valuable in its own right. Curiosity motivates and engages researchers, innovators and the public alike. Whether it be exploring the structure of the universe or the atom, the biology of our brains or the philosophy of what it is to be human, knowledge helps to expand the horizon of human understanding and imagination.

The UK is one of the world’s most successful research nations. Despite having less than 1% of the world’s population, and only 2.7% of global spending on research and development, the UK produces 15.2% of the world’s most highly cited research papers. The UK has overtaken the US to rank first by field-weighted citation impact. We are second in the world for the quality of our scientific institutions and are among the world’s best at attracting overseas students.

Funding for research and innovation in the UK is spent in a highly effective way. Evidence shows that the UK has a broad range of research strengths and demonstrates excellence in diverse research fields.

However, the world is changing and there are new challenges, opportunities and priorities for UK researchers and innovators. Realworld problems are inherently multi- and interdisciplinary, and we need to be able to act quickly to respond to new opportunities and initiatives by collaborating across disciplinary, organisational and national boundaries. New tools are changing the way we explore the world. The search for new knowledge and solutions is further blurring the distinction between disciplines and sectors.

The globalisation of research and development creates an intensely competitive international environment. While the UK has maintained its high performance, other countries are catching up, growing their research base at a faster rate than the UK.

UK Research and Innovation will work closely with our stakeholders and communities to shape and drive a strategic approach to research and innovation funding. We will continue to support excellent proposals from talented researchers and innovators. We will also work with researchers, innovators and other stakeholders to identify challenges and opportunities which could lead to new research breakthroughs, tools and methods.

We will build on our existing strengths to ensure the system is sufficiently integrated, strategic and agile, and will continue to grow our national capability to drive discovery and growth. We will:

  • Reward excellence with funding that is competitive on the basis of judgements made by expert reviewers. We will invest in the highest-quality research and innovation across the UK, wherever it is found.
  • Support a balanced dual support funding system for higher education so that universities can play their part in identifying and supporting areas where we have significant potential to be world-leading, and to ensure the system remains sustainable, efficient and effective. We will work closely with the devolved administrations and their funding bodies to achieve this across the UK.
  • Support the autonomy of individual councils when they are working within their subject domains, and facilitate and encourage collective working to support cross-cutting opportunities, including with the other UK funding bodies, ensuring that the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.
  • Engage with users of research and innovative companies to make sure our activities are targeted where they will make a difference.
  • Drive a strong culture of efficiency and evaluation to ensure we can understand what works, drive the benefits of investment, identify opportunities to get the most from our investments and ensure that future decisions are based on the best possible evidence.

Responsive and strategic grants

We invest around £6 billion every year in world-leading research, covering all disciplines and sectors. We will continue to champion both responsive and strategic modes of funding to enable discovery-led research to flourish in the UK and drive impact from new knowledge and breakthroughs.

As we prepare to advise Ministers on how best to achieve the 2.4% ambition, we will consider how we undertake long-term funding allocations to UK Research and Innovation’s councils to ensure we maintain our position as a world leader in research and innovation, and realise the aims of the Industrial Strategy to become the best country in the world for innovation and grow prosperity across the UK.

We will engage with stakeholders during this review to perform an in-depth analysis of existing spending plans and ensure we have correctly identified new strategic priorities, keeping in mind Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendation that funding should: “improve agility to respond to new initiatives and when necessary promote reallocation of resource”.

In advance of this we are launching the Strategic Priorities Fund. This will build on the vision of a ‘common research fund’ set out in the Nurse Review.

It will:

  • Drive an increase in high-quality multi- and interdisciplinary research and innovation by encouraging and funding work in areas which previously may have struggled to find a home. It will ensure that good ideas are supported that might once have been more challenged by organisational boundaries. It will give pioneering research the space to develop, laying the foundations for future capability.
  • Ensure that UKRI’s investment links up effectively with Government departments’ research priorities and opportunities, encouraging funding for research that crosses boundaries between UKRI councils and government departments. It will foster even closer collaboration between researchers and policymakers in directing the attention of research and innovation communities to the important questions identified by government departments.
  • Ensure the system is able to respond to strategic priorities and opportunities. The success of UK research is built on the dual support system – a combination of hypothecated and unhypothecated funding which ensures that the strategic insight of UKRI and the local knowledge of universities both help to shape research activity. This will continue. In addition, the Strategic Priorities Fund will ensure that strategically important research and innovation which is not aligned with other funding programmes can seek direct support. The Strategic Priorities Fund will provide a mechanism for increasing agility within the system, enabling funders to respond rapidly and ensure the UK remains at the cutting edge.

Dual Support and Balanced Funding

Under the UK’s dual support system, universities receive block grant funding through the four UK higher education funding bodies (including Research England) and UK-wide competitively-allocated grant funding administered through the Research Councils.

These two streams of funding are complementary and seen internationally as key to the ongoing quality and success of the UK research base.

In England the block grant, known as quality-related research funding (QR), will be administered by Research England within UKRI. QR and its equivalents across the UK are vitally important in providing underpinning funding for our world-leading universities to invest in the excellence and impact of their research and ensure the financial sustainability of our research base.

The complementary funding and decision making processes of the dual support system give it characteristics that one stream of funding alone could not deliver with the same resources. It sustains a balance between research responding to calls from funders, and research supported directly by institutions. QR (and its equivalent in the devolved administrations) enables universities to provide the long-term stability necessary to attract top talent, and can enable them to pilot new areas of research and innovation. Support for knowledge exchange enables universities to utilise their intellectual assets and distinctive partnerships for innovation, in partnership with the private, public and third sectors.

We will empower university leaders to identify and invest in the opportunities that they are best placed to see, whether blue skies research or local collaborations. QR explicitly rewards excellence based on the Research Excellence Framework, a world-leading assessment of output, environment and impact which incentivises the application of world-leading research into economic, societal and public outcomes.

The role of UKRI includes advice to Ministers on the balance between the dual support funding streams. We need to take an evidence-based approach and are therefore undertaking work to analyse and understand what constitutes reasonable balance, and the impact that any changes to the balance could have on the sector. We will continuously build our evidence, responding to new challenges, opportunities and wider changes in the sector to provide the best advice on future funding decisions. Whilst the focus of this work will be on the English dual support system, we will engage closely with the devolved administrations and funding bodies, sharing our evidence as it develops.

The Research Excellence Framework

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK HEIs. Its purpose is three-fold:

  • To provide accountability for public investment in research and evidence of the benefits of this investment
  • To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information
  • To inform the competitive allocation of around £2 billion per year of public funding for research.

The REF is an expert review which assesses the quality of outputs, their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research within universities. Following an evaluation of REF 2014 and public consultation, REF 2021 will take a more inclusive approach by assessing the work of all research-active staff, and will further incentivise impact by increasing its weighting to 25%. REF 2021 will also promote open research by requiring submissions to be made available in open access form.