Spending Review 2010 - HC 618Written evidence submitted by the Office of the Vice-Provost (Research), University College London (SR 10)

UCL is pleased to make a submission to the Select Committee inquiry into the Spending Review 2010. Our comments below are confined to the impact of the Science and Research Budget allocations, as determined by the Spending Review.

The Short-term Impact of the Research Budget Allocations

1. The Spending Review 2010 announced a flat-cash settlement for research funding, equating to a predicted cut in research funding of around 10% over four years in real terms. The allocation undoubtedly represents a tight funding settlement—particularly as regards the reduction in capital spending—and poses challenges for universities and for the wider research base. (For universities, the settlement must also be seen in the context of significant reform of public funding for teaching.)

2. However, we recognise that given the heavy reductions in public spending elsewhere, the science and research budget does represent a comparatively positive settlement, and reflects the Government’s acknowledgement of the importance of investing in research. We also welcome the ring-fencing of the HEFCE research funding stream within the overall science and research budget as an important protection in principle for research funding.

3. That being said, we emphasise that this reduction in funding should be a temporary measure as part of a wider fiscal constraint. Once the UK economy starts to recover, investment in science and research should be increased. Continued and sustainable investment in research remains essential for the future, both to underpin economic growth and to secure the UK’s international competitiveness.

4. Increased investment in the research base in recent years has enabled the UK to maintain a world-leading position, in the face of fierce and growing international competition. It will be important that this is not undermined by a lack of future investment that would risk negating the benefits of sustained investment in recent years. This point is particularly acute with regards to capital funding—where costly remedial investment through CIF and its predecessor funds, as well as the introduction of fEC, was made necessary by years of under-investment.

Supporting arts, humanities and social sciences research

5. It should also be noted that funding for arts, humanities and social sciences research is under pressure from reductions in both Funding Council and Research Council funding. As research in these areas is heavily dependent on QR, it is particularly vulnerable to cuts in the block grant, especially so in the context of HEFCE’s reaffirmed commitment to protecting STEM subjects within mainstream QR. We emphasise the importance of the block grant to universities both to support arts, humanities and social sciences research and to ensure that institutions have discretion to make important strategic decisions.

Allocation of funding

6. Having confirmed the total amount of funding provided for research via dual support funding through the Spending Review, the allocation of the funding within the research base will be important. A priority for the UK must be to sustain its world-leading universities—which provide concentrations of research excellence and world-class infrastructure—to maintain international competitiveness. To that end, we would suggest that, particularly at a time of very limited funds, funding should be primarily concentrated on the highest levels of excellence and on those institutions that offer research excellence across a breadth of disciplines. We discuss how multi-faculty research-intensive institutions can generate added value in paragraphs 20–21 below. We also make some comments on the important role of research collaboration in paragraphs 22–27 below.

Institutional responses to the Spending Review

7. The tight funding settlement illustrates the importance of individual institutional autonomy to sustain the UK’s research performance. The ability of universities to respond flexibly, taking into account their own research profile and key research areas, in order to preserve excellence and implement strategic decisions, is critical.

8. For example, UCL has made a number of important strategic decisions in response to the Spending Review allocations for the science and research budget:

we will use funding as flexibly as possible to ensure we can sustain our commitment to recruiting and retaining the most talented researchers;

we will ensure that the “surplus” generated at the end of the financial year (which is re-invested in the university) is targeted to capital funding and infrastructure in particular, to alleviate reduced public funding for capital investment;

we are firmly committed to continuing to support arts, humanities and social sciences research, and will make the appropriate strategic investment decisions to do so (this would prove impossible without the block grant); and

we will continue efforts to diversity our research funding sources, including from business and from European sources (UCL performs particularly well in ERC grants and will seek to build upon this success) as well as continue to work with UK funding bodies to ensure the most effective distribution of resources.

The Longer-term Impact of Budget Allocations

9. The short-term impact of the research budget allocations may be broadly manageable by seeking greater efficiencies and alternative funding sources, although the UK must prepare for some downturn in activity and output. The more serious potential consequences, however, are to the long-term health and future of the research base and to the UK’s international competitiveness as an economic and research power.

10. The Royal Society’s recent report The Scientific Century emphasised that science and innovation must be at the heart of the UK’s long-term strategy for economic growth; and that the UK must recognise the intense competition from countries which are investing heavily in research at a pace that the UK will struggle to match. This last point is made particularly acute by the contrast between the reduction in funding in the UK, and the economic stimulus packages developed by many of our established and emerging competitors which have provided significant new investment in research (in recognition of its importance in supporting economic growth).

Intensifying international competition

11. The reduction in research funding must also be seen in the context of the UK’s position consistently lagging behind other G7 nations and comparator OECD nations in terms of investment in R&D as a share of GDP. This means that the UK is not reducing funding from a position of strength, but rather from a position of having already been out-paced.

12. Meanwhile, a wealth of evidence shows the scale of investment by established and emerging competitor nations, which pose a serious challenge to the UK’s position. There is a serious risk that the UK will lose ground to our international competitors to the extent that it will not be possible to make it up. The EU Commissioner’s comments on the importance of investment in research in advance of a recent visit to the UK were telling.

13. We therefore reiterate that, as the public finances recover, investment in research must be increased at the earliest possible opportunity. We note the example of the Canadian Government’s response to economic downturn in the 1990s: initial austerity measures gave way to re-investment in research once as the economy started to recover. The UK Government should continue to work towards the target of investing 2.5% of GDP in R&D, as set out in the Science and Innovation Framework 2004–2014.

14. It remains an urgent priority for the UK to respond to growing international competition, in terms of both other nations’ investment in research and research performance (as measured by outputs, citations, and ability to recruit), and safeguarding past investment to ensure a sustainable research base in the future. The strong research performance of recent years will not be sufficient to sustain the UK’s international competitiveness and excellence without sustainable funding, particularly at a time where we must increase investment simply to maintain our standing. Without continued investment, the UK will start to lose ground and the excellence of our research base will be undermined.

The risks of under-investment

15. The importance of investment in science and innovation for long-term economic growth points to the necessity of maintaining international competitiveness; this requires a long-term commitment to sustainable investment in science and research. We strongly endorse the recommendation of the Royal Society that the Government should outline spending plans over a fifteen year period to provide stability and a commitment to maintaining sustainable investment for the research base.

16. The consequences of under-investment are extremely serious. The current settlement already prompts significant concerns about universities’ ability to recruit and retain the most talented staff, maintain breadth of disciplines, and invest in equipment and infrastructure. These are all vital in order to sustain the UK’s ability to undertake globally competitive research. In particular, we do not yet know the extent of the impact of constrained funding on the next generation of researchers, many of whom are now going abroad or leaving research. Without adequate support for younger researchers, the UK research base will crumble. There is a serious risk that the years of investment in the UK research base will be undone if spending on research remains reduced for too long.

17. We recognise that the Research Councils and other funding bodies have committed to investment in research capital—including infrastructure, people and skills—despite the reduction in overall spending, and this is welcome. However, such investment remains challenged and the potential deleterious consequences of the cuts to capital funding should not be under-estimated.

The importance of cross-disciplinary capacity

18. A particular concern is the impact of the spending review allocations on UK research excellence across a breadth of disciplines—a major strength of the UK research base. Over-specialisation or neglect of particular disciplines risks seriously damaging the UK’s research base and our long-term capacity for globally competitive research and international collaboration.

19. Research is increasingly a cross-disciplinary and global endeavour which makes sustaining breadth even more important. For example, research in the social sciences and the arts and humanities underpins many areas of research in scientific disciplines as well as generating important insights in its own right and providing the foundation for our understanding of the world, and many technological innovations cannot be fully understood or implemented without the benefits of insights from the social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, sustaining excellence across disciplines maximises the UK’s capacity to benefit from global research and “absorb the fruits of the best research, wherever it may have taken place”.

20. Ensuring the UK retains the capacity for specialisation across a board spectrum of disciplines also ensures our ability to undertake cross-disciplinary research, which is essential to address major global challenges. The UCL Grand Challenges thus seek to harness research and expertise from disciplines across the university to tackle complex global problems, stimulating cross-disciplinary research collaboration to address aspects of challenges facing humanity in each of our Grand Challenges: Global Health; Sustainable Cities; Intercultural Interaction; and Human Wellbeing.

21. Cross-disciplinary research enables the consideration of problems and their possible solution from multiple perspectives. We argue that such cross-disciplinary collaboration can only occur fully in multi-faculty research-intensive institutions that are able to bring a range of expertise to bear on complex problems. This provides novel and unique insights beyond what any individual discipline could generate: more significant outcomes can result when experts from different disciplines act in concert, enabling the synthesising and contrasting of knowledge, perspectives and methodologies of different disciplines—and ultimately, the judicious application of knowledge.

Research collaboration

22. Limited resources for higher education and research funding require serious consideration of how funding can best sustain excellence and a world-class research base. It is likely that a tight funding climate will mean, as well as fewer resources, greater concentration of research funding on centres of research excellence in research-intensive institutions that offer critical mass. We would suggest that increased collaboration between institutions will be necessary both to rise to the challenge of limited funds, and to exploit the full strengths of the UK research base.

23. By combining collective expertise, institutional-level collaboration can expand capability and capacity; enhance research strengths; and bring talented individuals and research groups together. Collaboration also allows the opportunity to share expensive facilities and equipment, develop joint grant applications, make joint research appointments and undertake joint supervision of doctoral students, and facilitate novel cross-disciplinary research. We would suggest that this model should be encouraged where possible and where there are clear mutual benefits to institutions and to the UK.

24. We would also suggest that increased collaboration between research-intensive institutions and other “islands of excellence” will be vital to ensure that the “islands” have access to sustainable funding via research-intensive “hubs”. We believe that this would allow the most efficient use of resources and sustain concentrations of excellence whilst ensuring the dynamism of the research base and making the most of all the UK’s research talent. Such a model would ensure support is maintained for excellent researchers wherever they are based, without risking the dilution of resources that could undermine our leading institutions or damage the UK’s research infrastructure. It would also enable institutions to work collectively to share complementary strengths whilst pursuing distinct missions.

25. UCL has taken a strategic decision to actively pursue research collaborations with other institutions, both with research-intensive peers and with smaller institutions in the south-east region, as well as collaboration in equipment and postgraduate training. Further details of our strategy and activity regarding collaboration is available on request.

26. We would urge funders to consider how they can best incentivise and facilitate collaboration between institutions, including a model of investing in regional research “hubs” with an imperative to collaborate with other institutions; or establishing a competitive research collaboration funding stream for universities. We would recommend a specific funding initiative to support research collaboration between universities with “pockets of excellence” and well-resourced research-intensive universities, to be implemented within the current spending review period. Funding should be awarded on a competitive basis to pairs of institutions that demonstrate complementary research strengths, a vision for developing research collaboration aimed at generating shared programmes, facilities and training, and a willingness to both initiate and sustain it at a strategic level. We suggest that this could be delivered at a cost of £450,000 per collaboration over three years.

International collaboration

27. The imperative of collaboration also applies internationally. Recent years have seen a significant growth in publications from emerging economies and internationalisation of research activities coupled with increasing co-authorship of scientific articles. , The Royal Society has noted “the emergence of an increasingly multi-polar, networked system of global science and innovation” which places an increasing imperative on the UK to maintain its research capacity in order to remain a partner of choice for international collaboration, as well as to maintain absorptive capacity. Collaboration across international borders is increasingly necessary to address major global challenges and participation in such collaboration is vital to ensure the UK remains a global economic and research power.

28. UCL is pursuing a number of international initiatives to develop collaborations. These include:

The UCL–Yale collaboration, also involving UCL Partners and Yale-New Haven Hospital, which aims to improve global health through scientific research, clinical and educational collaboration, in recognition that more can be achieved by working together than by each institution working alone. By involving both the universities and their partner hospitals, the alliance provides opportunities to exchange best practice, analyse clinical research and clinical care, and explore healthcare delivery in diverse settings.

The UCL School of Energy & Resources in Adelaide, established by UCL in partnership with the Government of South Australia. The school offers a two-year MSc in Energy & Resources, as well as a portfolio of executive education programmes, and is developing research activity.

Establishing a UCL campus in Doha, to provide research programmes and masters degrees in archaeology, conservation and museum studies as well as a wide range of bespoke training courses for museum and heritage professionals; teaching at Qatar University; outreach programmes involving cultural heritage teaching for school children; and research of relevance to the Gulf and to the Arab world more broadly.

A partnership with the Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan to deliver a foundation year at the NUA and a programme in English for academic purposes starting in September 2010, to enable talented students to meet entry requirements for bachelor degrees.

UCL’s MoU with the Max Planck Society builds on already-extensive collaborations to further strengthen links between the two institutions. This will enable UCL to work in partnership with a leading research organisation, fostering international collaboration and combining our significant expertise to deliver leading-edge research.

Research funding mechanisms

29. UCL continues to have concerns over the efficiency of current mechanisms employed by the Research Councils for the allocation of research funding, which place a significant burden on universities. We welcome moves to introduce longer, larger grants, and target more funding to investigators rather than specific research projects in order to reduce bureaucracy and provide greater freedom in pursuit of research. We would encourage the Research Councils to continue to explore ways of reducing the bureaucracy and burden of their funding allocation process.

30. Looking to the future, we would suggest that the Research Councils should take more responsibility for joined-up strategic planning across the research base as a whole at the national level, in terms of capacity and infrastructure, whilst universities should have greater flexibility through an enhanced block grant to make strategic decisions and investments, recognising that researchers themselves are best placed to identify the future direction of research.

Conclusion

31. The outcome for the science and research budget following the Spending Review was not as bad as had been feared. However, the reduction in funding still presents major challenges for the UK research base and for universities. The longer-term consequences, as well as the short-term impact, of the spending review must be considered. Sustaining the UK’s research base must remain a priority for Government, particularly in the context of fierce international competition and the increasingly global nature of research. Increasing collaboration between institutions is likely to play an increasingly important role in sustaining the UK research base and helping to alleviate some of the reduction in funding; maintaining international competitiveness; and addressing global challenges.

32. We therefore recommend:

Increasing investment in research as soon as the public finances start to recover. In particular, the block grant should be sustained and enhanced.

The Government should set out a long-term strategic framework for research for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

A specific funding initiative to support collaboration in the UK between research-intensive hubs and groups in smaller institutions.

20 April 2011

Prepared 7th November 2011