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Change in the research system

  • 17 August 2023
  • By David Sweeney
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by David Sweeney, Professor of Research Policy at the University of Birmingham and a member of the HEPI Advisory Board.
  • In August, we are running chapters from the Anniversary Collection, supported by Elsevier, as a series of blogs. This piece is the ninth chapter from that collection.

At the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on the 19 April 2023, Sir Paul Nurse, giving evidence about his Review of the Research Landscape, said ‘It has been more or less the same for half a century. I am suggesting – you heard the words – revolution by evolution’.1 Perhaps ‘more or less the same’ could be said of the core student education experience at many universities (and the author’s student experience was indeed half a century ago) but, at a system level, the education system has seen several resets while the research system has seen more incremental change, as Sir Paul suggests. Nevertheless, those incremental changes in the research system, both in the UK and globally, have been significant, particularly over the last 20 years seen by HEPI. Sir Paul’s words may not capture the breadth of change in the research sector, perhaps because the research system changes have not had the attention which has been occasioned by the resets in the education system. This article looks at changes in the university research landscape drivers through the lens of engagement with government, at engagement globally and at challenges to research aims and objectives, noting contrasts with the higher education system.

Government, Parliament and the research system

Debate about education is entwined with the political discourse of our country. Tony Blair’s aspiration for participation was announced at a party conference and intended as a differentiating factor in the political cut and thrust. Education policy remains a political differentiator, though perhaps more in rhetoric than specific policy proposals. Research and development is not so entwined and has remained a government enthusiasm for over 60 years, perhaps beginning with Harold Wilson’s ‘The White Heat of Technology’ (a 1963 party conference speech) which set a tone for future administrations of both parties. 2 Modes of policy delivery may have been subjected more to the enthusiasms (and experience) of Ministers but always following consistent policy directions. Helpfully, a succession of UK ‘gold medals’ (DNA ‘fingerprinting’, cloning Dolly the Sheep, the discovery of pulsars, graphene, the Higgs-Boson, the Covid vaccine and many many more) have allowed whoever is in power to celebrate the success of their investment in research and development, or perhaps the success of previous administration’s investments.

The drivers of change from government have very much been about accountability, the power to control research directions (though not much exercised) and – inevitably – funding. These matters partly lie with Ministers of the day but also notably with Parliament, where we have seen beneficial research-related Acts of Parliament, serious and informed scrutiny from Select Committees and independent balanced and accessible analysis of public policy issues from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. As HEPI was established in the early 2000s, the Government’s Office for Science and Technology (OST) set up Research Councils UK (essentially a co-ordinating committee of the distinct disciplinary Research Councils ‘led by’ OST’s Director General of the Research Councils). A 2005 report showed the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee were deeply unimpressed that the Director-General may have ‘led’, but he was clear this did not amount to accountability for the Councils (he being a government official and they being armslength bodies) and that the Chair of RCUK (one of the Chief Executives but rotating in this post) was similarly not willing or able to speak on behalf of all of the Councils.3

In addition to concern about parliamentary accountability, the Government, having clearly set out its aims in a significant Science and Innovation Investment Framework in 2004, was disobliged when it delivered what it considered to be a beneficial Spending Review settlement in 2007 (a 17.5% increase) only to discover that the settlement was insufficient to support the budget of the new Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).4 There was a subsequent considerable and long-running fuss (the Science and Technology Committee received ‘a substantial volume of correspondence from within the particle physics and astronomy community’) and the new, and short-lived, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was criticised as was the STFC.5 The global financial crisis in 2008 exacerbated concerns in government about the locus of consequential funding decisions and, despite the promise of the 2004 Framework, there was an uneasy relationship – perhaps best described as a mutual lack of trust – between the research system and government until the establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in 2018 provided an accountability framework.

The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) built on the Education (No.2) Act (1986) Act and formally established the Haldane Principle in law to general approval, although some of the post-2015 new funding was not delivered through routes where Haldane applied.6 UKRI addressed the accountability issue decisively (the CEO of UKRI is accountable to the Science Minister) and the relatively smooth transition of the researchrelated responsibilities of the Higher Education Funding Council into Research England (within UKRI) and continuing support from the devolved funding bodies meant this structural reset did not lead to significant change for universities in their approach to research.

At the point that HEPI was established, the 2004 Framework also included a new consideration of the full costs of research (direct and indirect costs) when awarding grants. A costing system – TRAC, the Transparent Approach to Costing – had been implemented at the turn of the century in response to work which showed that the research infrastructure in universities had deteriorated to a worrying level and threatened the country’s ability to contribute to global research efforts. The ‘Full Economic Cost’ (fEC) arrangements came into play, with an arrangement whereby public funders committed to meeting 80% of the full costs while universities, being active participants in research direction choices and not just contract research organisations, took responsibility for 20% of the costs.

No change in that formal position has occurred but continuing budgetary pressures has led incrementally to a further 10% or so of the costs passing to the university. Arguably that change has been manageable – because of the steady increase in overseas student income – but it is not now clear whether other pressures might mean the system needs a reset.7 In addition, the lack of a contemporary rationale for the allocation of research costs suggests that some reset, as opposed to further incremental change, may be required.

Global engagement

The UK higher education system offers a distinctive and globally competitive offer which, alongside US higher education, has become the venue of choice for students from across the world.8 The UK’s reputation is often endorsed by funding and support from other governments in their choices of location for higher education provision. In contrast, the UK research system is fully globally engaged, through outward, as well as inward, mobility; it offers an attractive venue for researchers to pursue their careers but equally encourages UK researchers to help lead projects all over the world. Sir Paul Nurse himself is an example, spending almost half of the last 20 years in the US. Success in collaborative projects overseas with UK participation is celebrated as a UK success. The days of ‘brain drain’ rhetoric (at least in research) had probably passed by the time of the 2004 Framework and UK universities have been a ‘partner of choice’ for many overseas organisations rather than a ‘competitor’. The current discourse of ‘Science Superpower’ can more reasonably be understood in that light than in an explicitly competitive one.

The UK system had no need to reset to play that role but various incremental changes were supportive, notably in some beneficial visa arrangements, in universities providing enhanced facilities for researchers from abroad, in the development of very strong collaborations through government development aid (for example, the Official Development Assistance (ODA) / Foreign, Commonwealth & Development and Commonwealth Office) funding and in the building of strong research clusters around universities. Until recently particularly strong European collaboration was fostered by the government, by universities and by researchers. The threats to the UK of being unable to continue collaborative work with European partners (by continuing engagement with the European Commission’s Horizon scheme) and the loss of a significant amount of Government Aid funding may lead to a reset and, as this is written, the alternative to Horizon (‘Pioneer’) can be interpreted either as incremental change or a reset.

Many other changes to the research system over the last twenty years have been driven by the UK’s global engagement, and in some cases led by the UK. The importance of working across disciplines to tackle research challenges has been better recognised with various Units, Institutes and Centres set up to bridge possible disconnections that may arise from a university structure which looks very similar to that of 20 years ago. There has been greater attention to research integrity and reproducibility with a plethora of training, guidelines and policies. Doctoral training has progressively been revised with increases in funding, more structured programmes (including taught components and professional development activities), the establishment of centres with interdisciplinary training opportunities and by collaborative awards between universities and other organisations. Increased numbers of students from overseas have enriched the UK’s research culture. Completion rates have improved a little but time-tocompletion has also increased and there is still a gap between the expectations of PhD candidates and the opportunities which are open to them after completion.9 The case for further incremental change is strong but within a framework of global approaches to doctoral study.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion matters have been significantly addressed in some areas, with Advance HE’s Athena Swan programme much admired by some other countries, but alongside much broader, but not always well-defined matters of ‘research culture’ remain more of a challenge for the next 20 years than an achievement in the past two decades.10 In the EU and the UK, there is considerable attention to how different forms of research assessment might provide a reset to our approach to various culture issues. However, the general principle of ‘openness’ has been taken forward in the sphere of research publications – with significant leadership from the UK working with European partners – but with more limited progress on open data and open research practices.

All of this indicates that Sir Paul’s ‘nothing has changed’ comment might not quite be so apposite but would largely endorse his ‘revolution by evolution’ statement.

Research aims and purposes

The education system saw significant resets to the purpose of higher education just as HEPI was established. The move from polytechnics to universities (formally in 1992 but with significant institutional refocusing at the start of the HEPI period) and the encouragement of ‘alternative providers’ were both resets. No such structural change happened in research, but over the period there has been movement in what has been recognised as ‘research success’ – what the research system was intended to deliver for citizens and society.

Those whose conception focussed on ‘basic research’ – recognised by particular success criteria such as the percentage of highly-cited papers and the number of Nobel prizes won – might feel there has been a reset. However, this characterisation of research misrepresents the research landscape which developed after (as long ago as) 1945. For example, through the previous Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC) and the relevant government department there was a collection of experimental horticulture stations around the country (very much industry driven) and over 20 research institutes in different sectors and areas. The post-war development of the research landscape was broadly conceived and, as in the United States, often not centred around a university. Before and after 2003 this changed incrementally, with influence from UK drivers which may not be appropriately recognised and are often ignored when critiques are made of the current system.

Government funding was under continuing pressure as the source was often government departments where research was not always a visible priority, and where funding cuts could more easily be made in organisations which were some distance from Whitehall. Secondly, the Research Councils understandably struggled to manage and fund disparate organisations alongside their primary approach of responsivemode grant funding. Thirdly, the organisations themselves had limited ability to win their own grant funding as they were required to make a significant contribution to cover the full costs of research but lacked sources of funds to do that. They also had limited amounts to invest in new directions on their own account. It was politically challenging (particularly against local pressures) and expensive to reorganise, as the AFRC found when moving from over 20 institutes to eight multi-site institutes.

No system reset occurred, partly because universities, growing in income, influence and mission, were willing to share the responsibility for many of those research organisations. Sometimes that responsibility was interpreted as ‘investing’ (without many of the bureaucratic constraints which happen with government investment) or as ‘rationalising’ with the university repurposing the infrastructure gained for other developments. The Medical Research Council was particularly enthusiastic at moving institutes inside university responsibility and the research staff were generally enthusiastic about the benefits of working with a major research university. So, incrementally, the landscape moved towards a university-centric approach, though with some pushback from government due to the loss of government control. Comments were made about ‘passing the authority for research direction decisions into university hands’ but even the government struggles to maintain authority when giving up funding responsibility and expecting another party to provide the investment.

If disinvesting from one kind of research, the government did make distinctive and newly-funded approaches to the research landscape as set out in the 2004 Framework; perhaps this is the closest to a ‘research system reset’, though it is of limited funding importance to the university sector. The Technology Strategy Board established in 2003, focussing on research and innovation for business, became an arms-length agency in 2007 and was renamed Innovate UK in 2014 and then merged into UKRI in 2018. Each of those steps played into a challenge from government that research, as seen from Westminster, should be delivering outcomes for all aspects of society, though with particular attention to economic impact. Alongside the core research effort, many science parks were established and there was a considerable increase in the number of new businesses (‘spin-outs’) developed by academic founders and enhanced by close engagement with leading US universities such as MIT, Stanford and Columbia.

This approach was particularly visible in the requirement that research impact should inform the assessment of research quality, through the Research Assessment Exercise and its successor, the Research Excellence Framework.11 These assessments were primarily carried out as an accountability mechanism to assure government that research funding was being delivered effectively and efficiently. They have become a significant lever towards increased engagement with business and society by amending the definition of ‘excellence’ to include an assessment of the ‘impact’ of that investment. Initially there was fierce opposition to the concept, notably from Nobel prize winners (though those generally are awarded long after the research was carried out and because of impact which could rarely be bettered). In the event, the government welcomed the outcome of the change and universities and researchers rapidly adjusted to the concept, which sat well with the broader purposes of universities as significant economic and cultural actors in most parts of the country.

This government push for broader research outcomes was backed with additional resources, including new schemes such as the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund [UKRPIF] (giving public funds to support university research which was privately funded), the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (where the government set the challenges but a fruitful collaboration between Innovate UK and the Research Councils chose the projects), Strength in Places (rewarding regional partnerships mostly based around universities) and now Innovation Accelerators (rewarding more structured regional partnerships). Additionally, a plethora of new Institutes were established, often named after prominent UK citizens (Francis Crick, Henry Royce, Rosalind Franklin, Alan Turing, Michael Faraday as well as the Dementia Institute) usually with some, but varying, forms of university partnership. A number of business-focused Catapult Centres were also set up, with some including significant university investment.

While the education sector went through revolutions in structure and funding, the research sector incrementally moved from a very unmanaged and diverse system to a more structured system, significantly more focussed on universities and taking advantage of considerable investment from the universities themselves.


As regards the research system and universities, one key question is whether the future lies in further incremental change (‘revolution through evolution’) or whether the amount of incremental change has stretched the system so much that a reset is required. The most critical current issue appears to be the balance between university investment, often made possible by cross-subsidies from income such as international student fees and external investment (whether from government, private funders or charities). Meanwhile, the issue of whether existing research culture issues require significant reform (including the precarity of research careers, the principal investigator/research team relationship, whether research is significantly informed by diverse perspectives and engagement) leading also to increased costs, remains. Both of these matters are the subject of fairly charged debate and HEPI will be a platform for the debate and discussion to take place over the next 20 years.


  1. Nobel Laureate and Chief Executive Officer of The Francis Crick Institute
  2. Matthew Francis, ‘Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech 50 years on’, 19 September 2013 science/political-science/2013/sep/19/harold-wilson-white-heattechnology-speech
  3. Science and Technology Committee,     The Work of Research Councils UK, 2005 cmsctech/219/219.pdf
  4. HM Treasury,  Science and innovation investment framework 20042014, July 2004 ukgwa/20100407170242/ sr04_science.htm
  5. Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Science Budget Allocations, 2008 cmselect/cmdius/215/215.pdf
  6. The Government does not take decisions on which particular research projects to fund but delegates decisions to the Research Councils.
  7. Nick Hillman, From T to R revisited: Cross-subsidies from teaching to research after Augar and the 2.4% R&D target, with a Foreword by Professor Robert Van de Noort, HEPI Report 127, March 2020 https://
  8. London Economics, The benefits and costs of international higher  education students to the UK economy, Report produced jointly by HEPI, Universities UK International and Kaplan International Pathways, May 2023 uploads/2023/05/Full-Report-Benefits-and-costs-of-internationalstudents.pdf
  9. Bethan Cornell, PhD students and their careers, HEPI Policy Note 25, July 2020
  10.     charter
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