From zero to IRO

SCIENCE IN PARLIAMENT, 29 Jan 2021

If the government wants a broader ecosystem of scientific research organisations, it needs to support non-university science. Here’s how.

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 research. The viability of our approach was confirmed in 2019, when the London Institute was recognised as 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. As well as the London Institute, these include the Armagh Observatory, the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Wellcome Sanger Institute for genomics.

Our accreditation was an endorsement of the quality of our research and the amount of funding we had brought in from research agencies ranging from DARPA to the EU’s Horizon 2020. On the one hand, this proves that non-university research centres in science are feasible. On the other hand, the fact that there aren’t more suggests something isn’t working. For a sense of just how thin the current ecosystem of research organisations is, look at the last £5.2bn given by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. 97.4% of it went to universities or joint ventures between universities. Another 2.4% went to the Faraday Institution for battery research and the national Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Less than 0.2% of the total budget went to Independent Research Organisations. Clearly, for aspiring researchers, a university job is practically the only game in town.

To understand why this is so, you need to go back to the early 19th century. That was when a German educational theorist, 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.

However, this 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 themselves. Since then, the core curriculum has vastly expanded, 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 they are required to teach to undergraduates.

It is not obvious how dividing scientists’ energies between research and teaching could be of benefit to research. Supporters of the Humboldtian model point out that, through teaching, academics get to spot the most talented students and recruit them for future research positions. This is beneficial, but it doesn’t justify the monopoly universities hold 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. It’s one we are so familiar with that it’s hard to perceive its strangeness. Yet many university scientists admit to feeling 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 declared its commitment to developing a rich and diverse scientific research ecosystem—spelled out, for example, in the R&D roadmap it published in July last year. If it means what it says, it needs to reform how it supports the small number of Independent Research Organisations that are dedicated to research. Crucially, it must offer them the same funding advantages it extends to universities.

Universities currently receive two kinds of funding, the core and the specific. The £3 billion of annual specific funding, which is given by the Research Councils, is allocated for projects and programmes. It mainly goes to researchers who win it in competitive schemes to do research in their field of expertise. The £2.2 billion of core funding, which comes from Research England, is high-trust, long-term support, which goes to universities 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 his report “The Road to 2.4%”, 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. There is currently no standard mechanism by which we, or any other non-university research centre, can achieve this.

We propose a structured, precedent-based application process. The organisation applying should be based in the UK and be primarily dedicated to research. That research should be of potential national importance. The organisation should meet the conditions of an Independent Research Organisation, which stipulate, for instance, that it should be a charity that has brought in a certain amount of research funding. It should be willing to work with universities and government, and to engage with the public and industry. It should have a five-year business plan, which spells out its finances and research areas, and also be committed to continue seeking specific funding. If all these criteria have been met, the application would be signed off by BEIS, and core funding granted for a five-year term.

With proper high-trust support, non-university institutes will deliver more bang for the government’s buck. Scientists with the freedom to devote themselves full-time to research can do more science, take bigger risks and tackle more transformative projects. Competition from thriving institutes will also inspire universities to cut bureaucracy, reduce demands on scientists’ time and use government funding more efficiently. The result will be more ambitious discoveries, for less money, at a time when the UK economy is at full stretch.