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Research Funding

The mega-agency

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 3, 2018 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 96, ISSUE 23

 

You may be familiar with Mega Millions, megabuses, and megastars. The mega fever does not stop there: In the past few years, it also reached the publishing industry, where it manifested via the introduction of megajournals. Now the latest to join the mega club are the funding agencies.

At least that is how the U.K.’s newest funding body has been referred to: a mega-agency. The term reflects the changes that have been put in place by the U.K. government to manage its investments in scientific research and innovation, with all public research agencies consolidating under the umbrella of a new, overarching body called UK Research & Innovation, or UKRI.

The work to create this mega-agency started about three years ago when the government put into action a plan to dismantle the nine independent agencies that at the time provided funds for public R&D in the country and create a new one. About three weeks ago, UKRI released the first outline of its strategy, a document aptly named the Strategic Prospectus.

So let’s talk about money first. True to its 2015 pledge, the U.K. government has put its money where its mouth is and increased science spending: UKRI’s starting overall budget is £6 billion (approximately $8 billion). The U.K. plans to gradually increase its spending from about 1.7% to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Current R&D spending for China and the U.S., for example, stands at 2.1 and 2.7%, respectively, and of course no one can predict what will happen, but this investment no doubt will make U.K. science more competitive.

This significant investment in research is intended to boost the U.K.’s economy. A first read of the strategy suggests it will be positive for science in the country. If nothing else, it’ll provide a single, strong voice to represent science and the scientific community in front of policy-makers and the public at large. It also seems forward looking: supporting multidisciplinary work, as well as activity related to the government’s priorities, while still leaving room for researchers to chase emerging areas. Early-career scientists are also in luck, as the plan has created a new type of fellowship that would allow young scientists to receive funding for up to seven years to establish themselves and their areas of research.

I applaud the U.K.’s pioneering approach, and I’m sure governments around the world will be watching to see how this mega-agency grows and evolves. There is a tremendous opportunity to be experimental, and if there is someone who can make these ambitions a reality, Mark Walport (an immunologist by training and the man leading the agency) certainly has the credentials. He headed the Wellcome Trust (a biomedical research charity with an endowment of £23.2 billion, one of the largest in the world) for a number of years and was also the U.K. government chief scientific adviser from 2013 to 2017.

But while this major reform of the science funding system has been happening, the U.K. government has also been busy with Brexit. How the U.K.’s exit from the European Union may affect UKRI is unclear. About one week after UKRI’s Strategic Prospectus was launched, the U.K.’s prime minister, Theresa May, confirmed she was willing to pay to maintain access to Horizon Europe when the U.K. leaves the EU next year. Access to Horizon Europe, the EU’s research-funding program, will be crucial both to the future of UKRI and to the U.K.’s ability to maintain competitiveness, facilitate the establishment of collaborations, and allow European researchers to stay in the U.K. With U.K. universities employing about 30,000 scientists from the EU and receiving about £850 million per year in funds from those countries, I don’t doubt that this topic will soon rise to the top of Walport’s agenda.

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