Speech

Leading the world in the new age of global science

Speech by Jo Johnson MP, Minister for Universities and Science, at the Wellcome Trust.

It is a pleasure to be here at the Wellcome Trust. This living monument to medical research sits at the heart of one of the world’s greatest knowledge quarters.

It is a cluster that includes University College and its associated hospitals, the University of the Arts, the British Library, the Francis Crick and the Alan Turing Institutes and companies including Google and Facebook.

This ‘knowledge quarter’, like many others around the country, embodies so much that is special about the UK as a research and innovation powerhouse as we face new challenges and ever stronger global competition.

As the Prime Minister set out last Friday, the government will continue to take forward the important legislation that we set before Parliament in the Queen’s Speech.

So my focus today, as we look ahead to the passage of the Higher Education and Research Bill, is to reflect on what underpins our strengths as a knowledge economy – and the steps we are now taking, and must take, to preserve them into the future.

But first, a reflection on what the referendum result means for research and innovation in the UK.

I am only too aware of the many questions that will be in your minds following the vote last Thursday. The academic and business communities were strong voices for Remain during the referendum campaign – and I want to thank you all for the role that you played.

While it was not the outcome for which I and many of you campaigned, I accept this momentous decision by the British people and am committed to making it work.

Now is the time to focus on the future, and with an optimistic mindset. We must look for the positives, while we deal with the challenges.

Today is first an opportunity to remind ourselves that our economy is fundamentally strong and that UK research and innovation are world leading. And for me to give you my commitment to continue working with you to make the strongest possible case for higher education, research and innovation in the coming negotiation.

In legal terms, nothing changed overnight last Thursday. We remain an EU member during the 2-year renegotiation period, with all the rights and obligations that derive from this. EU students studying here, or looking to start in the autumn, remain eligible for student finance for the full duration of their courses. We remain fully open to scientists and researchers from across the EU. We hugely value the contribution of EU and international staff. And there are no immediate changes to their rights to live and work in the UK.

It is business as usual for Horizon 2020. I would be concerned about any discrimination against UK participants and am in close touch with Commissioner Moedas on these issues.

The UK also continues to lead in major non-EU research collaborations – from CERN in Switzerland to the European Space Agency. Just this month we confirmed the UK’s application to become a full member of a major new particle accelerator, the European Spallation Source in Sweden.

But the prospect of Brexit inevitably poses new challenges, at a time when research itself is becoming more collaborative, and more global.

Our task now is to chart a course that protects the UK’s status as a full-spectrum scientific power.

We have fundamental strengths on which we must now build.

First and foremost we have a long established system that supports, and therefore attracts, the brightest minds, at all stages of their careers. We fund excellent science wherever it is found, and ensure there is the freedom to tackle important scientific questions.

We recognise the talent pipeline is critical. So we are doing all we can to develop the next generation of researchers. This week we opened applications to our new Master’s loan. We are also developing for the first time a new Doctoral loan to complement existing Research Council funding. In this Parliament we will have utterly transformed the funding landscape for post-graduate study.

As a government we recognise the contribution that our world-class research base makes to our economy and wellbeing, which is why at the Spending Review we committed to protect the science budget in real terms, and protect the funding that flows through Innovate UK in cash terms. These commitments remain.

Second, we have excellent scientific infrastructure here in the UK – in universities, in existing research institutes, such as the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and in new institutes like ‘The Crick’ and ‘Royce’. This is backed by a manifesto commitment of £6.9 billion capital funding up to 2021 – that’s record levels of investment in new equipment, new laboratories and new research institutes.

Third, we have access to major research infrastructures across the world, such as the Large Hadron Collider, in which the UK plays a leading role. We are a major partner in building new infrastructure such as the Square Kilometre Array whose global headquarters will be based at Jodrell Bank; and in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which made the dramatic gravitational waves discovery. It was UK researchers, working with their counterparts, who made this discovery possible.

And we are hugely successful at innovation – second in the latest Global Innovation Index and one of the most attractive countries in the OECD for international business R&D investment. Only last week the prestigious MacRobert Award of the Royal Academy of Engineering was awarded to Blatchford, a global leader in the development of prosthetic limbs. They have integrated robotics into a prosthetic limb for above-knee amputations – it’s a masterpiece of engineering that combines advanced materials with cutting edge deployment of ICT. Advances such as this are now being celebrated in the first ever UK Robotics Week.

But, while we can be confident that our fundamentals are strong, we need to evaluate the consequences to UK science and innovation of leaving the EU. And ask why, following the decision to leave, it is even more necessary for us to implement the proposals in the White Paper and Bill, and deliver on our manifesto commitment to implement the Nurse review.

So let me deal with each of these in turn.

Europe and the world

There is no doubt that UK researchers and businesses do extremely well in EU research funding programmes. And we helped to shape the European Research Council in our own image, with its emphasis on peer review and funding excellence.

It is too early to say what a new settlement will look like and exactly what our relationship to successor framework programmes will be – but I am confident that we can continue to thrive.

The UK has been a centre of scholarship for more than eight centuries. Our universities were knowledge hubs long before the EU ever came into existence. We are already extremely connected with the rest of the world – in 2012 nearly half of articles by UK researchers were co-authored by at least one non-UK researcher, second only to France amongst other leading research nations. These connections will continue. Our position as a science superpower, held since the dawn of the Enlightenment, can be maintained.

But this will require a concerted effort from government, the research community and, importantly, from the new leadership of UK Research and Innovation, under John Kingman.

The role of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

I have no doubt that the formation of UKRI will provide indispensable support to our research and innovation leadership during this period of change in our relationship with the European Union. Now, more than ever, as these communities face new challenges, we need a strong and unified voice to represent your interests across government, across Europe and around the world.

We are outstanding at discovery science – and are getting much better at turning those discoveries into economic benefit - but we must do even better.

The government is already taking steps to strengthen the research and innovation landscape. We will shortly publish a new national innovation plan. We have already protected research funding. We have maintained innovation funding through Innovate UK, and the R&D Tax Credit is benefitting record numbers of businesses. We are also continuing to grow our Catapult network, where the very best of the UK’s businesses, scientists, clinicians and engineers work side-by-side. We are now developing a wider range of financial instruments to support innovative firms and better target public support.

But for every one of our successes, there are examples where UK scientific discovery has been developed off-shore, lost to a competitor, exploited elsewhere. We know the stories - from the early days of computing to pioneering imaging techniques such as medical ultrasound and CT scanning.

That’s why we need UKRI to strengthen our ability to spot technology trends and develop a much more strategic approach to research investment.

Increasingly, innovation is occurring at the intersection between scientific disciplines and technologies – such as between biology, materials and computer sciences in the development of medical prosthetics. This means that many of the major problems that we face require inter- and multi- disciplinary solutions. We see this in the impact case studies collected for the REF, the Research Excellence Framework. And we know that many of the world’s emerging scientific powers are not just growing their scientific capabilities, but they are increasingly investing in collaborative research that crosses traditional discipline boundaries and national borders.

Which brings us to the reasons that the government asked Sir Paul Nurse to conduct his review of the Research Councils. The Nurse Review powerfully made the case that while we are excellent at science, the collective research endeavour could be so much greater than the sum of its parts. It spelled out the gaps we need to fill:

  • a lack of strategic join-up between the disciplines and between the research base and policy-makers;
  • a fragmented approach to investment, that lacks the capability to address multi- and inter-disciplinary research as effectively as we might; and
  • historic weakness at commercialisation, with a need for a smoother pathway for innovation.

We have also listened carefully to the NAO report which saw the need for a more joined-up and strategic approach to our science capital investments. We are investing in our research infrastructure on a record scale, but the NAO said that we should develop a more strategic process for identifying priorities and proposing projects, potentially through the integrated organisation recommended by Sir Paul Nurse.

That is why we are legislating to establish UKRI, which will include the Research Councils, Innovate UK and a new Council – Research England.

So what will UKRI accomplish?

First and foremost, it will serve as a single, overarching and protective funding body that operates at arm’s length from government and provides a strong voice for the research and innovation community. Now, more than ever, as these communities face a unique set of global challenges, we need a powerful voice to represent UK research and innovation on the world stage and ensure we maximise opportunities from all our global research collaborations.

Through UKRI, we have the promise of the best of both worlds – combining what works so well now, while ensuring we meet the challenges ahead.

But as well as a strong, strategic voice in UKRI, the Higher Education and Research Bill clearly sets out how Council leaders will retain their autonomy to fund the very best research and innovation activity, employ the best staff, and serve their individual discipline communities. They will continue to manage their specialist centres and institutes, as the Research Councils do now.

Whilst all staff will be employees of UKRI, recruitment and terms and conditions of staff in Councils and any associated institutes will be set by the Councils, in line with any flexibility granted by the government. And each UKRI Council will in the future enjoy greater freedom to develop their own delivery plans, working with their peers on the UKRI Board, at arm’s length from officials and at a further remove from ministers in Whitehall. This means a net gain in academic autonomy.

Second, UKRI will ensure we have more consistent mechanisms to shape a national research and innovation strategy, with members of the research and innovation community in the driving seat. In the last Parliament, we made an important move in this direction – with David Willett’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ and the further development of cross-Research Council programmes. But the arrangements so far have been ad hoc and reliant on top down ministerial intervention, rather than bottom-up and organic direction-setting by the science community itself. We could clone David, so all future science ministers can be as wise and far-sighted as him. Or we could develop a capability - within UKRI - for the systematic development of the kind of research and innovation strategy that will help us to compete in the world for decades to come.

Through UKRI, we will have a national research and innovation strategy developed organically by the research and innovation community itself, helping to guide more than £6 billion in annual government investment and delivering greater coordination across the delivery plans of each of UKRI’s 9 autonomous Councils.

Each part of UKRI will be able to work seamlessly with the others, supported by strong central infrastructure and analytical capability.

The ability to work swiftly and strategically across disciplines will be critical to the new Global Challenges Research Fund. At present, it is not within the legal remit of any of the Research Councils to hold, manage or distribute the necessary multi- and inter-disciplinary grants from the Fund. Moving forward, we will be able to fund challenges directly through ‘common research funds’ in addition to government allocating budgets across different disciplines.

Our reforms will ensure that the £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund delivers the biggest bang for buck – strengthening the global impact of UK research.

Now, more than ever, it is time to show that Britain is outward-looking and engaged with these global challenges. And that’s why I am pleased today to be able to make a further announcement about how we are investing to support this work. We are creating a new £1 million Newton Prize, starting next year. This will not be just a one off, but an annual prize – awarded for the best science or innovation projects that promote the economic development and social welfare of Newton partner countries or address the problems of poor people around the world. It will be awarded by an independent Newton Prize Committee. And I am very pleased to announce that Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, has agreed to chair the Newton Prize Committee. Sir Venki brings a wealth of scientific and international experience and I am immensely grateful that he has agreed to do this.

Third, UKRI will have a remit that spans discovery through to commercialisation. Innovate UK will continue to focus on business-led innovation. It will continue to have a separate budget and serve the business community. But it will also have a clearer remit to help drive innovation from within the research base, aligning its innovation strategy with the Research Councils.

All of this will be underpinned by continued support for a sustainable, world class Higher Education sector. Research England will retain HEFCE’s research and knowledge exchange functions, including Higher Education Innovation Funding.

HEIF is an essential mechanism to support universities in effectively contributing to UK growth. Research England and the new Office for Students will act together to deliver HEIF, as an example of the joint working between the two bodies and their shared remit to support business-university collaboration.

And as I set out in a speech earlier this month, we are taking other steps to bring teaching and research closer together. Our proposals include provisions for joint working, cooperation and information sharing between the OfS and UKRI. An emphasis on working together will run through the leadership and management of both bodies, supported by a legal framework that will be sufficiently flexible to deal effectively with areas of shared interest.

I also want the REF and the TEF to be mutually reinforcing. We will ask institutions to consider how they promote research-led teaching in their TEF submissions; and I have asked Lord Stern, as part of his review of the REF, to consider the impact of excellent research on teaching. We look forward to hearing the results of his review shortly.

It will continue to be a matter for each of the devolved administrations to consider how to turn REF results into ‘dual support’ funding. We are working with them, and I was in Scotland earlier this week, to discuss the steps we can take to ensure UKRI works to fund excellent science across the UK, just as Research Councils do now. UKRI is just that: an integrated organisation with a remit to think and act strategically across the whole of the country.

The balance of funding between the Councils will ultimately be decided by ministers, as it always has been. But, with the formation of UKRI, we will have a new mechanism for the whole research and innovation community to determine its own priorities, and to advise ministers as to their view on the optimal budget allocations.

Conclusion: 5 tests

By preserving the strengths of our research base, and building capability for the future, we have a real opportunity to ensure we are truly leading the world in this new era of global science and innovation.

And with both the funding and the strategy in place, we have every reason to be optimistic.

But we in government will need to continue to work closely with the research and innovation communities as we adjust to the realities of a new relationship with the rest of Europe.

The country that inspired the steam engine, the double helix and the World Wide Web has no guaranteed pass to the scientific premier league in the next century, nor can protected funding alone guarantee success.

The nature of the next scientific breakthroughs is changing, and we must adapt with it.

Now, more than ever, and as the Parliamentary process moves forward in the months ahead, we must galvanise our national research and innovation effort, and make sure it is fit for the future.

I have 5 tests for the success of these reforms:

  1. Are we training and attracting world-class scientists and engineers, who are in turn able to help shape a more cohesive national research and innovation strategy?

  2. Do we have a strong national champion for research and innovation, able to make a case in government, with the public and around the world in support of UK science and in pursuit of international collaboration?

  3. Are we fully exploiting economic opportunities from our research base, especially in new and emerging technologies, maintaining our reputation as a global innovation leader?

  4. Are we effectively targeting our efforts at society’s biggest challenges, with the ability to support more multi- and inter-disciplinary research, and success at winning global recognition for UK-led breakthroughs?

  5. And have we preserved for future generations the vital components of academic autonomy, made possible through the Haldane Principle and Dual Support, that underpin so much of what is great about UK academia?

We can pass these tests, and seize the opportunity – not just to preserve what already works well, but also to turn the challenges we now face to our advantage.

We must now work together to get this right. We have the chance both to maintain everything that is exceptional about UK research and innovation, and cement our unparalleled leadership in this new age of global science.