At the Conservative Party Conference this week, the Universities Minister Chris Skidmore became the latest high-profile MP to speak at the National Academies’ events on research investment.
Skidmore reiterated the Government’s commitment to investing ‘a bare minimum’ of 2.4% of GDP in research but argued there is a need to more effectively communicate to the public the benefits of investment in research. He suggested a new ‘overarching framework programme’ with a ‘mission-based approach’ to research funding would help the public to understand the link between investment and innovations.
Skidmore said: ‘My duty is to ensure public perception follows the money. If we’re looking to increase the research and innovation budget in the long term, then we need taxpayers to know where their money is going.’
Skidmore also said he wants to replace ‘freedom of movement with freedom of talent’ and warned against creating a hostile environment for researchers.
The British Academy welcomes the Minister’s commitment to the 2.4% target, but the prospect of extra funds for research makes it even more important that the government adopt the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee’s recommendation for a careful revisiting of the balance of funding across the research and innovation landscape. The Academy strongly supports the current structure of dual support for UK research funding, and welcomes the announcement earlier this summer of a real terms increase in QR (quality-related) funding, the block grants which universities receive to fund the underpinning physical and intangible infrastructures that enable them to undertake world-leading research.
When it comes to allocations to individual research councils, the Academy recognises that the costs of undertaking research in the natural, medical, and physical sciences, and in engineering, are often higher than those in the humanities and social sciences, but given the size of the research community in the humanities and social sciences, the quality of the output, and the significance of the challenges we face as a society, there is a strong case for re-examining the low proportion of research council funding currently allocated to these disciplines.
Moreover, given the success of the humanities and social sciences in winning funds from the European Research Council in the past (around a third of the funding available in these disciplines has been won by UK based researchers), if in future the UK is unable to access these funds, we must ensure that domestic funding structures do not hamper our ability to push the frontiers of knowledge to improve our lives and wellbeing, as well as sustain economic growth.