Guidance

Explainer: how UKRI’s institutes support research and innovation

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UKRI
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What are UKRI institutes

UKRI’s institutes are integral to the UK’s research and innovation ecosystem. They are national centres of excellence that provide leadership, expertise and infrastructure for the wider research and innovation community. They deliver societal, economic, and scientific benefits for the UK and beyond.

Institutes are difficult to define precisely. They form part of a group of research and innovation organisations that include research and technologies organisations (RTOs) such as the Catapults (technology and innovation centres), public sector research establishments, other independent research organisations (IROs), and some specialist higher education providers like the Institute for Cancer Research.

UKRI provides strategic core funding to over 60 institutes and catapults across the UK, with investments totalling just over 10% of our budget in 2020 to 2021. This funding supports long-term capability within institutes by providing a critical mass of expertise, knowledge and equipment to meet their specific missions.

UKRI-funded institutes are highly varied in their purpose, governance, and disciplinary and sector focus, reflecting the diversity across the UK’s research and innovation institutional landscape.

What institutes do

While institutes’ primary missions are specific to their particular area of research and innovation, across the landscape they typically fulfil one or more of the following purposes.

Capability for the nation

Institutes deliver essential research and innovation functions for the UK, including infrastructures, services, experiments, measurements and analytics for the benefit of government, national and international agencies, society and the economy, including to:

  • inform regulation
  • inform public policy and debate
  • support national resilience
  • inform emergency response

Research focus

Institutes deliver long-term focus in an area of strategically important research and innovation, providing a world-leading centre of excellence within the UK through hosting a critical mass of knowledge, expertise and infrastructure.

Capability for the research and innovation system

Institutes maintain and develop large national facilities and infrastructures, datasets and archives, providing cutting-edge resources for the use and service of the wider research and innovation community.

Innovation and translation focus

Institutes de-risk innovation, either in a particular sector or by accelerating adoption of platform technologies across multiple sectors. They often sit at the interface between academia, public sector and business.

How institutes are governed

Much of the diversity in how the institutes UKRI supports are governed results from their histories. Some are over a century old and have evolved over time, while others are much newer.

These differences can be simplified into three categories:

  • wholly-owned by UKRI: part of the public sector
  • legally-independent institutes: separate legal entities with independent governance from UKRI, although UKRI may be the majority core funder
  • embedded: fully hosted by another organisation, usually a university

Many institutes involve partnerships between UKRI, other funders, and research organisations. For example, the Francis Crick Institute is a partnership between the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust, University College London, Imperial College London and King’s College London.

Other institutes use a distributed model, bringing together capability embedded across multiple organisations. For example, the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), which is headquartered at the University of Leeds, coordinates research groups hosted within 12 other universities and institutes.

Council support of institutes

See an infographic showing institutes supported by UKRI and how they are is governed.

Councils support different institutes in different ways.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) supports:

  • Centre for Cultural Value (embedded in a university)
  • Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre (embedded in a university)
  • Design Council (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre (embedded in a university)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) supports:

  • Babraham Institute (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Earlham Institute (legally independent of UKRI)
  • IBERS (embedded in a university)
  • John Innes Centre (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Quadram Institute (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Rothamsted Research (legally independent of UKRI)
  • The Roslin Institute (embedded in a university)
  • The Pirbright Institute (legally independent of UKRI)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) supports:

  • Alan Turing Institute (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Henry Royce Institute (embedded in a university)
  • Rosalind Franklin Institute (legally independent of UKRI)

EPSRC and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) jointly support:

  • National Quantum Computing Centre (wholly owned by UKRI)

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) supports:

  • ADR-UK (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Centre for Economic Performance (embedded in a university)
  • Cohort for Longitudinal Studies Enhancement Resources (embedded in a university)
  • Institute for Fiscal Studies (legally independent of UKRI)
  • The Productivity Institute (embedded in a university)
  • UK Data Service (legally independent of UKRI)

Innovate UK supports:

  • Agri-EPI Centre (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Agrimetrics (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Cell & Gene Therapy Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Connected Places Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Crop Health and Protection (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Digital Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Energy Systems Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • High Value Manufacturing Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Medicines Discovery Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Satellite Applications Catapult (legally independent of UKRI)

MRC supports:

  • Francis Crick Institute (legally independent of UKRI)
  • Health Data Research UK (legally independent of UKRI)
  • MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • UK Biobank (legally independent of UKRI)
  • UK Dementia Research Institute (legally independent of UKRI)

NERC supports:

  • British Antarctic Survey (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • British Geological Survey (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • National Centre for Atmospheric Science (embedded in a university)
  • National Centre for Earth Observation (embedded in a university)
  • National Oceanography Centre (legally independent of UKRI)
  • UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (legally independent of UKRI)

Research England supports:

  • The Institute of Zoology (legally independent of UKRI)
  • The School of Advanced Study (embedded in a university)

STFC supports:

  • Boulby Underground Laboratory (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Central Laser Facility, including EPAC (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Chilbolton Observatory (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Daresbury Laboratory (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Diamond Light Source (legally independent of UKRI)
  • ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • National Quantum Computing Centre (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • RAL Space, including NSTF (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • The Hartree Centre (wholly owned by UKRI)
  • The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (wholly owned by UKRI)

Cross-UKRI:

  • The Faraday Institution (legally independent of UKRI)

How institutes are funded

UKRI invests a significant proportion of its budget in institutes and catapults. This amounted to close to £1.5 billion in 2020 to 2021, representing around 16% of our annual budget. Some councils typically spend between a third and half of their budget on their institutes every year.

UKRI funds its institutes through three main channels:

  • core capability funding, for most institutes, which underpins their ability to fulfil their mission
  • capital, which includes World Class Laboratories funding and major capital investments and upgrades, many institutes manage large national facilities which need regular upgrades to remain at the leading edge
  • competitive grants won from across UKRI

Not all institutes receive all these types of funding, and the proportion varies considerably by institute, reflecting their purpose, activity and governance.

Pie chart showing UKRI funding to institutes by funding type

The graph shows UKRI funding to institutes and Catapults by type, with 64% being classified as core capability, 26% as capital and 10% as competitive grants.

Other sources of funding

Many of the institutes we fund also receive income from sources external to UKRI. These include grants and contracts from:

  • other government departments
  • charities and businesses
  • philanthropic donations
  • commercial income
  • international sources of funding including Horizon programmes

The majority of funders, UKRI included, do not pay the full cost of work carried out through competitive research grant funding. Unlike universities, institutes do not generally have access to flexible strategic institutional block grant funding, part of the dual support system for UK research and innovation. Nor do they have significant surplus-generating activities, such as international student fee income, that can cross-subsidise their loss-making research activity. This issue forms part of much wider ongoing considerations of the sustainability of the UK’s research and innovation system, read about this in our blog Fixing the gap in research funding.

How institute funding is balanced against other strategic priorities

Institutes are major strategic investments for UKRI which must be balanced within the wider portfolio of investments across the rest of the research and innovation system.

Decisions are made by considering the role of an institute within its area of research and innovation, and understanding how that fits with the research and innovation activity performed by the other organisations, including universities.

Institute lifecycles are longer than typical political and fiscal periods, such as Government Spending Reviews. To meet their long-term strategic objectives, institutes ideally need long-term funding commitments to build up, maintain and evolve their research and innovation excellence and capability.

However, over the past decade, constrained budget settlements have meant many institutes have seen a steady real-term decline in their funding. The flat cash protection for research council budgets across this time, unlike the science budgets of other government departments that support Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), has been helpful in mitigating these constraints. However, the recent sharp rise in the costs of energy and other research expenses has increased budgetary pressures further.

Case studies

AHRC: the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre

Modern slavery traps 40 million people worldwide and costs the UK economy between £3.3 to £4.3 billion a year. Despite the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, there are still between 10,000 to 13,000 people enslaved in the UK.

The Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre was established by AHRC in 2019 to enhance understanding of modern slavery and transform the effectiveness of law and policies designed to address it.

It undertakes policy-focused research to:

  • respond to strategic challenges
  • advance understanding
  • stimulate innovative and effective solutions

It brings together academics, policymakers, businesses, civil society, survivors and the public on a scale not seen before in the UK to collaborate on solving this global challenge.

The centre is a consortium of six organisations led by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, and including the Alan Turing Institute, The Clewer Initiative and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

EPSRC: the Alan Turing Institute

Alongside the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, Warwick and University College London, EPSRC established The Alan Turing Institute in 2015 to build on the UK’s existing strengths and position as a world leader in algorithms and the application of data science. In 2017, its remit was expanded to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI).

The Turing has been attracting the best researchers across a breath of disciplines, from the UK and worldwide. It has grown a strong collaborative network with partners in academia (including over 38 universities), industry, government and the third sector to promote the development and use of data science and AI.

It has three ambitious goals:

  • to advance world-class research and apply it to real-world problems
  • to train the leaders of the future
  • to drive an informed public conversation

The institute has delivered many successes, including:

  • the creation and adoption of a new discipline, data-centric engineering
  • helping to diagnose dementia
  • forecasting Arctic Sea ice coverage
  • producing ‘The Turing Way’, a handbook to reproducible, ethical and collaborative data science

The Turing is headquartered at the British Library, with core operating funding from EPSRC and the institute’s university partners. Funding for activity across its three goals comes from strategic partners (Accenture, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, DSO, GCHQ, MOD, MI5, Lloyd’s Registry Foundation, NATS, ONS and Roche) and other project partners.

The ambition for the Turing is to continue to be at the centre of a networked and interconnected UK data science AI research and innovation community.

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