We welcome the opportunity to comment on the Nurse Review into Research, Development and Innovation (RDI). Prior to and since the publication of the call for views, we have consulted within our individual institutions and engaged with partners and stakeholders.
We wish to highlight four areas, which we have discussed in detail throughout our response.
1. Historically, funding for PhD students and Doctoral Training Centres has been concentrated within research-intensive universities. We believe that there is an opportunity to support more research in post-92 institutions, taking advantage of their expertise in applied research. This would bring diversity not only in the research body but in the types of research carried out.
2. Postgraduate students can contribute to the place agenda. More funding needs to be made available to address local challenges, co-designed with local actors. We would welcome the review exploring ways in which doctoral funding can contribute to post-pandemic recovery.
3. Although the focus of this review is to position the UK as a science superpower, we believe a more fundamental issue affecting the UK economy is the skills gap. Funding research which seeks out innovative approaches to tackle this issue and how best to create entrepreneurial ecosystems should also be considered.
4. The current balance between competitive and Quality Related (QR) funding risks creating a short-term view of research and compounding issues in the precarity of research contracts. This acts as a barrier to a creative and diverse research workforce. We recommend the focus on the balance between QR and research council funding is prioritised.
Doctoral Training partnerships and diversity in postgraduate research
Historically, funding for PhD students and Doctoral Training Centres has been concentrated within research-intensive universities. We believe this approach risks merely entrenching existing capabilities while restricting the capabilities of other universities to develop their research capacity.
This creates a lack of diversity both in the focus of the research projects and the research community. Research funding bodies themselves have recognised that there is an under-representation of women researchers and that researchers from an ethnic minority background were less successful at being awarded funding.
UKCGE’s Postgraduate Researchers at the Heart of Research & Development (October 2021) reports that “the CDT / DTP mechanisms may inadvertently create barriers to equality, diversity and inclusion by obscuring application processes; by excluding HEIs who fall outside consortia but who have greater experience of recruiting and supporting
under-represented PGR populations; and by suppressing ‘non-standard’ approaches and research methodologies”. http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/article/postgraduateresearchers-heart-r_and_d-485.aspx
The Young Foundation’s report in July 2021 found that the social sciences was not particularly diverse and there was a “lack of representation at senior levels”. (https://www.youngfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/SRA-Diversity-in-Research-Report-Final_210701.pdf )
The Levelling Up agenda provides a new lens to revisit funding arrangements, ensuring research power is distributed to new areas. Integrating regional development with R&D funding can be mobilised through doctoral training with partners beyond those in the traditional R&D community. Funding streams for doctoral research would allow locally defined priorities to set the research agenda.
This would be a real opportunity to carry out research which is relevant to the local population, would see an increase of work across disciplinary boundaries and attract a more diverse group into doctoral research.
PhD studentships for place-based research which could benefit both regional centres and PGR career prospects could include:
• Funding to support pilots for civic-education
• Funding which would support PhD projects and studentships actively contributing
to Build Back Better – projects dedicated to local challenges, co-designed with
and advertised to local people.
• Funding which would support PhD projects in under-represented research fields,
often excluded from major UKRI PGR DTP/CDPs, such as, nursing, social work,
counselling, product design, or hospitality, in partnership with local hospitals,
health centres and local industries.
• Funding which would provide placement opportunities for PhD students as an
integral part of their research training within local businesses and local
• Evaluation to include exploration of the ways in which a shift in doctoral funding
can contribute to post-pandemic recovery.
Skills and innovation connected to research
One of the goals of the Review is to futureproof the UK landscape of organisations, undertaking all forms of RDI, from pioneering, visionary blue-skies research to practical support for innovators to commercialise or implement their ideas, and ensure an agile and sustainable system that can respond to future priorities and developments
The Review poses this question in the context of science and technology rather than social sciences, arts and creativity which, we argue, is limiting. Innovation should not just be viewed through the science and technology lens. A wider interpretation would open up more funding to sectors that are hugely important to the economy, such as the creative industries and fashion.
Post-92 institutions have the expertise, networks and experience in these sectors and as such can bring the practical support described in the Review goals to address the challenges that businesses face.
The most obvious challenge is the skills gap. As the Government acknowledges in 2021, England potentially faces a deficit of high skills in 2030 amounting to around 2.5 million people if there is not an increase in qualification levels. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/trend-deck-2021-skills/trend-deck-2021-skills
Research is therefore vital to fully understand the barriers preventing people from accessing the training needed, and to assess what companies will need in the future.
Place-based research co-created with companies could direct research towards examining what interventions have the greatest economic impact at a regional level, prioritising capacity needs and assessing where money is best spent has the potential to have tremendous positive effect on the UK economy.
RDI investment in areas highlighted by business will be aligned with local skills needs. This in turn will lead to an upskilling of the workforce and can increase innovation capacity, lead to higher productivity levels, greater competitiveness and attract higher-skilled workers to areas which previously had a paucity of such opportunities.
To enable this, we would welcome part-time secondments of senior researchers to the research councils alongside colleagues from research intensive universities and senior individuals from other knowledge providers. This mix of senior stakeholders would provide a more balanced view of research priorities and counter unhelpful perceptions of bias.
Of note is the relative absence of enterprise universities from steering groups or committees that scope reviews and consultations. This risks bias from the outset, and we would like to see more proactive approaches to involve Post-92 institutions in shaping the review and policy agenda.
Longer term funding
Quality Related (QR) funding is vital to the UK research base. The balance of QR funding against competitive funding has changed over time, and while there has been a positive shift through an increase in investment from Research England in 2019, a focus on the balance of the dual support system for research should be maintained. QR funding provides greater flexibility for its use and longer periods of assured funding for researchers than research council grants. Universities also have greater flexibility in how to direct funding which better facilitates cross-subsidisation to other research areas and interdisciplinary working. Un-hypothecated funding allows universities to remain agile in responding to the research needs of their region, and place, and develop their own areas of expertise.
Competition undoubtedly has a role to play in advancing high-quality research, however if the balance tips to where an environment is perceived as highly competitive there is a risk this influences researcher behaviour. There is a danger that an over-emphasis on competition and financial viability of research, and an under-emphasis on collaboration and advancing good practise, risks research integrity and causes a bias towards the pursuit of areas which deliver short term outcomes. This could mean riskier but potentially important and impactful areas of research are not pursued.
• There is a danger that competitive grant funding creates short-term approaches to research, acting as a barrier to creative work and diversity in the research workforce.
• This is connected to precarity of research contracts for staff – research conducted by Wellcome revealed only 29% of respondents felt secure pursuing a career in research. https://wellcome.org/news/we-need-invest-researchers-long-term
• 29% of respondents surveyed in the Research Integrity Landscape Study reported a negative impact of research funding on research integrity. https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/UKRI-020920-ResearchIntegrityLandscapeStudy.pdf
In closing, MEU organisations recognise the opportunity afforded by contributing to this review at what is a crucial time for reimagining the ways in which research can contribute to eliminating regional inequalities, and the broader societal benefits this brings. By representing our collective expertise in this response, member organisations aim to provide practical recommendations and advance the MEU mission to serve the prosperity of the Midlands.