Academy calls for detailed parliamentary scrutiny of Higher Education and Research Bill

September 2, 2016

The Academy of Social Sciences and its Campaign for Social Science have called for detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the Higher Education and Research Bill following the uncertainty resulting from the referendum decision to leave the European Union.

In a briefing note, the Academy and Campaign examine specific provisions in the Bill in light of proposed changes to the UK research infrastructure set out in the May 2016 White Paper. The note highlights a number of the White Paper’s positive statements in relation to existing UK research and aspirations for strengthening it further, including:

  • Promises to enshrine the dual support system for research funding into law.
  • Confirmation of the ‘Government’s commitment to the Haldane principle’, by which ‘decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves through peer review’.
  • Pledging that the ‘seven research discipline areas will continue to have strong and autonomous leadership’, as well as a commitment to structures that will promote more agile inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary research, while also simplifying funding processes.
  • A promise to retain the names and brands of the Research Councils and Innovate UK in the creation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), while establishing nine Councils within UKRI with delegated autonomy and authority.

The Academy and its Campaign’s briefing note outlines disjunctions between the Bill and the White Paper, proposing actions to address these concerns in order to safeguard the continued excellence of UK research.

  • After six years of flat funding from the UK government, we face the prospect of a significant reduction in research funding from Europe. With uncertainty over the shape of the post-referendum settlement, the major changes to university regulation, monitoring of teaching quality and research infrastructure proposed in the Bill require special scrutiny to ensure they are suitable under a number of scenarios if the strengths of UK research are to be protected.
  • Far from enshrining the dual support system, the Bill leaves the decision wholly to UKRI about the appropriate funding balance between the new Research England and the research committees under UKRI. It seems to envisage no role for research or teaching communities to influence strategic capacity building which straddles research and teaching. We think detailed parliamentary consideration should be given to whether there is sufficient protection for the dual support system.
  • Questions remain on where the exact lines of authority and responsibility lie across the Secretary of State, the UKRI Chief Executive, the UKRI Board and the Executive Chairs of the Research Committees. The danger is that this could lead to a top down model of research, with little mediation, which could undermine innovative and beneficial research, and which could undermine autonomy. We recommend that the bill should be amended to follow the recommendations in the Nurse Review that the Executive Chairs of the Research Committees are ex officio members of the UKRI Board.
  • Narrowness of the proposed remit of UKRI and its Research Committees is too limiting and does not fully reflect the public benefit contribution of social science research. We recommend that the language of the Bill be amended so that second duty is ‘public benefit research’, or ‘research for public good’ instead of or in addition to ‘quality of life’.
  • While the Bill makes clear that the definition of ‘science’ includes ‘social science’, we believe it should be amended to include the term ‘social science throughout’.

Read the full briefing note here.

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