From zero to IRO

15 JUL 2020

If the government really wants a rich and diverse ecosystem of scientific research organizations, it should extend core funding to IROs.

There’s a bizarre inefficiency in the way we organise scientific research. It's this. We identify the best scientists, then impose fierce limits on how much science they can do.

The explanation for this strange state of affairs is that the overwhelming majority of science is done at universities, where scientists are expected to devote a significant proportion of their energies to teaching. Add to this the escalating demands of university bureaucracy, and what you’re left with is legions of talented researchers, who feel lucky if they get to spend a day a week on research. If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is.

It is also the reason why we founded the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences in 2011. We wanted it to be a place where, unlike at universities, scientists had the freedom to dedicate themselves full-time to science. That’s why it matters that, in 2019, the Institute was designated an Independent Research Organisation.

In the UK, the vast proportion of state funding for research is lavished on universities. The rest is given to a select number of Independent Research Organisations, of which only a handful are scientific. These include the Armagh Observatory, the European Bioinformatics Institute, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute for genomics.

Our accreditation, which we worked towards for several years, was an endorsement of the quality of our research and the amount of funding we had brought in from research agencies ranging from the US Department of Defense to the EU’s Horizon 2020. On the one hand, our success proves that independent research centres in science are viable. On the other hand, the rareness of our achievement suggests that something isn’t working.

In order to understand why a university job is almost the only option available to a scientist, you need to go back to the early 19th century. That was when a German educational theorist named Wilhelm von Humboldt popularised the idea that research should be shackled to teaching. His argument was that this would benefit education, since students could learn from those at the forefront of knowledge discovery.

Yet that way of thinking is out of date. In Humboldt’s heyday, the science that undergraduates needed to learn included that being discovered by the professors. Since then, the core curriculum has grown hugely, and today none of it is 21st century science. In other words, the science that professors are experts in is no longer the science that undergraduates learn.

This doesn’t even touch on the question of whether what’s good for students is also good for researchers. It’s not immediately obvious how dividing scientists’ energies between research and teaching could be of benefit to research. One answer is talent spotting — if they're involved in teaching, academics can recruit the most talented students into future research positions. This is undoubtedly a bonus, yet it falls far short of justifying the stranglehold that universities have over research.

Nevertheless, having embraced the Humboldtian model two centuries ago, the Western world still clings to it doggedly. In the UK, in particular, the union of research and teaching has become a fact of life. And it’s one we are so familiar with that it’s hard to perceive its strangeness. Yet when you speak to university scientists, you find that many of them are deeply frustrated by these structural inefficiencies, and hungry for an alternative.

The current government, which is the most science-friendly in a generation, has repeatedly proclaimed its commitment to developing a rich and diverse scientific research ecosystem. It declared it again recently in the R&D roadmap that it published in July 2020. If it means what it says, it needs to reform how it supports Independent Research Organisations. Crucially, it must offer them the same funding advantages that it extends to universities.

Universities get two kinds of funding, the core and the specific. The £3bn of annual specific funding, which is given by the Research Councils, is allocated for projects and programmes. It goes to researchers who win it in competitive schemes, mainly to work on research projects in their field of expertise. The £2.2bn of core funding, which comes from Research England, is high-trust, long-term support, which goes to research organizations with little restriction on how it is spent. It is allotted based on performance, which is regularly assessed through the Research Excellence Framework.

As former science minister David Willetts has pointed out in a recent essay, the UK is right to be proud of its two-track funding system. Yet its pride can obscure what he calls “a significant omission”, namely that there is minimal core funding for non-university institutions. At the London Institute, we have gone from qualifying for zero state funding to qualifying for one kind: the specific. But we are still denied the core, high-trust funding. In other words, we have gone from zero to one. Now we need to progress from one to two.

If the government really wants a rich and diverse ecosystem of scientific research organizations, it should extend core funding to IROs.