Viewpoint: UK Research and Innovation: a critical national asset

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As the organisation turns five, our chief executive Ottoline Leyser looks at the vital role UKRI will play in the UK’s future prosperity.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is celebrating its fifth birthday and a lot has been achieved since the first Nurse review recommended its establishment in 2014.

The Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) legislated for its existence in 2017, and it formally came in to being in April 2018, bringing together the seven pre-existing research councils, the UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK, and Research England.

Since its inception, UKRI has operated through extraordinary times both nationally and globally. I would like to take this opportunity to thank UKRI’s hugely dedicated staff, across our national labs and institutes and our professional service teams, who have worked tirelessly to serve research and innovation in the UK.

And there is much more to come, as we look to the revolution by evolution set out in the second Nurse review.

Creating the joined-up system

There is a growing consensus that for the UK to build prosperity and security for all citizens, research and innovation have a pivotal role to play.

As set out in the government’s framework for science and technology, research and innovation must be woven into everything that we do, creating a virtuous cycle that drives high quality, affordable public services, innovation-led, high-productivity businesses with high quality jobs, and a highly skilled, prospering and thriving society right across the UK.

We are a small country and we will never be able to achieve our research and innovation potential through scale of investment alone.

Our only option is through smart, joined up, integrated actions, fostering a fully connected research and innovation system.

A system through which people and ideas move freely, shortening the distance between discovery and value creation in our economy and our society.

UKRI’s crucial role

UKRI is a key enabler for this imperative and it is no exaggeration to say that it is crucial for the UK that UKRI reaches its full potential.

UKRI’s vision and our strategy articulate what is needed.

Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and globally.

To achieve this, our strategy sets out how we must foster a diverse, connected, resilient and engaged research and innovation endeavour built on people, places, ideas, innovation and impacts.

Addressing the challenges

UKRI has to work effectively and efficiently to achieve these ambitious goals.

We are making progress, but we still have a lot to do. Some of the remaining challenges are highlighted in the Independent Review of UKRI (led by Sir David Grant), which published its findings last summer.

Underpinning many of the review’s findings, and a significant hurdle for delivering what the UK needs, is the persistent lack of clarity and understanding about what UKRI is.

When a new organisation is created from pre-existing ones, there will inevitably be uncertainty. People across the communities we serve have long-standing relationships with the pre-existing organisations.

HERA, the legislation that brought UKRI into being, is crystal clear that these organisations will maintain their identities and purposes as part of UKRI. What then does the creation of UKRI add?

UKRI is its councils

In my experience, UKRI is often viewed as a tenth thing, sitting above its nine constituent parts.

Some view the role of this tenth thing as being responsible for cross-council activities, such as support for interdisciplinary research. This view perhaps emerged from one of the big successes of the early years of UKRI. UKRI won a significant uplift in funding in the form of the National Productivity Investment Fund that supported initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Strategic Priorities Fund that ran as ring-fenced UKRI programmes, separate from core council investments.

Some view the role of the tenth thing as to provide top-down direction to the councils on how they should operate, for example harmonising processes and policies. At the same time, there is concern that this top-down direction will compromise the excellent work the nine councils do by adding layers of bureaucracy, or by homogenising inappropriately.

However, the ‘tenth thing’ concept risks undermining the many opportunities created by bringing together nine organisations to become more than their sum.
Rather, UKRI is the nine councils, working together to do more than they could do alone. UKRI’s executive committee consists primarily of the Executive Chairs of the nine councils.

Every council Executive Chair has a dual role as the leader of their council and as a member of the senior leadership team of UKRI.

These roles will sometimes be in tension in the short term, but the health and vibrancy of the whole is, in the longer term, essential for the health and vibrancy of the parts. Every member of the executive committee brings expertise in a particular domain to the table, providing the opportunity to work collectively to deliver the research and innovation system that the UK needs for success.

Supporting collective working

As we mature as an organisation we are earning greater trust and freedom to operate. The outcome of the 2021 Spending Review was a major milestone, delivering our first fully multi-year settlement with a sustained rising trajectory across it, and much greater flexibility across our budgets than we have previously had.

This has supported much better collective working across UKRI, including the decision to govern some funds collectively to maximise the impact of council-led investments.

Two examples of this are a new pan-UKRI responsive mode funding opportunity to support interdisciplinary research and innovation not well-served by existing council structures, and funding for five cross-UKRI outcome focused themes. The latter will invest to bridge gaps and capture synergies in the council-based investment portfolios for each theme, as well as leverage collaborative opportunities with partner funders nationally and globally.

In addition, we are moving toward a more collective approach to funding talent, again capturing the benefits of diverse council-anchored expertise to support the full range of skills and talents needed for a thriving 21st century research and innovation system.

A shared endeavour

As with so much in research and innovation, success requires an ability to support creative, free ranging, open, bottom-up activity, and to connect it dynamically to top-down priorities, ensuring both current and future needs are met.

And it requires ensuring that a diverse portfolio of people, infrastructures, institutions, places and ideas are not only supported, but also properly joined up to deliver innovation and impact at many scales in our society and our economy.

UKRI is the engine for the virtuous cycle we need to create so that public services, businesses and people prosper. UKRI is one organisation with nine parts, diverse and connected. It is the deep expertise of the nine parts, harnessed in the service of all that creates the opportunity to drive this virtuous cycle.

To succeed, research and innovation must be a fully shared endeavour. In the five years since the birth of UKRI, this has become both more apparent and more urgent than ever, reflected in the creation of the new governmental Department for Science Innovation and Technology, which will drive the adoption of the government’s Science and Technology Framework.

Our job is to work with our many stakeholders to capture the benefits of connected diversity, locally, nationally and globally. As our strategy says, we aim to transform tomorrow together.

Top image:  Credit: DKosig, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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