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Daily News Update




May submits letter of notice to leave the EU

Prime minister Theresa May has formally written to the president of the European Council Donald Tusk confirming the UK’s intention to leave the European Union after 44 years of membership.

Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union, personally handed the letter to Tusk at 12.20 on 29 March. The six-page letter triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. It also includes notification that the UK intends to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

After this point, the UK has two years to negotiate its exit, although that period can be extended with the agreement of all parties to the negotiations.

Minutes after the letter was handed over in Brussels, May spoke in the House of Commons, saying that this was an “historic moment from which there can be no turning back”. 

The prime minister also clearly expressed her willingness to continue collaborating with the EU on security and research. “We hope to continue to collaborate with our European partners in the areas of science, education, research, and technology, so the UK remains the best place for science and innovation.” 

The letter builds on May’s Lancaster House speech, on 17 January, in which she outlined the broad framework for the UK position following the results of the 23 June referendum.

It sets out two scenarios—departing from the bloc with a deal that secures a “deep and special partnership” that takes in both economic and security cooperation, or leaving without an agreement and returning to trade on World Trade Organisation terms.

It also spells out May’s wish to simultaneously negotiate a “bold and ambitious” free trade deal with the EU, “of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before”, covering financial services and network industries. This is in contrast to the present EU position which is to begin trade talks after exit terms have been finalised.

May failed to include a commitment to protect the rights of EU citizens living in Britain, but said that both sides in the negotiations “should always put citizens first”.  

She goes on to say that Britain will negotiate as “one United Kingdom, though taking due account of the specific interests of every nation”. This is a necessary caveat as the devolved administrations have their own, independent obligations to the EU.

May wrote that she expected that, after Brexit, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would see a “significant increase” in their decision-making power. The peace process in Northern Ireland should receive special attention in the process, while avoiding a return to a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, she wrote. 

What happens next

In her speech, May confirmed that a white paper on the great repeal bill will be published on 30 March. She added that she foresaw a two-year negotiation process followed by a “phased process of implementation”. 

The European Commission is expected to circulate draft guidelines on how the negotiations will run and what they want to achieve. This document is expected to cover ‘sequencing’—whether the talks of the exit deal would be held in parallel with those about the framework for a future relationship between the UK and the EU or not.

The heads of the 27 EU governments will then agree on these guidelines at a European Council summit, likely to take place in April. Shortly after that, representatives from both the UK and the EU would agree on the sequencing of the negotiations and the frequency of their meetings.

Negotiations are not expected to begin in earnest until the autumn. On the UK side, they will be led by chief negotiator Olly Robbins. His opposite number on the EU side will be chief negotiator Michael Barnier representing the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament.

It remains unclear whether the UK could legally backtrack at any moment during the two years of negotiations and decide to stay in the EU. Speaking to the newspaper Politico on 28 March, John Kerr, a former UK diplomat and cross-bench peer, said he doubted whether backtracking was legally possible. Kerr was responsible for including Article 50 in the Lisbon treaty. 

The entire process should conclude with a draft agreement around October 2018 that would be subject to ratification by the parliaments of the UK, the EU and the EU member states. This would then lead to Britain leaving the bloc by March 2019. 

Between 2007 and 2013, the UK received €8.8 billion (£7.6bn) in EU funding for research and innovation. About 60 per cent of the UK’s internationally co-authored research papers include EU partners, and in 2015-16, 17 per cent of the UK academics were nationals of other EU countries.


UK > Politics > Northern Ireland


Northern Ireland forced to use emergency budget powers

The failure to form a new executive in Northern Ireland has forced civil servants to take control of a reduced budget.

The Northern Ireland executive failed to agree a budget before the Northern Ireland Assembly was formally dissolved on 26 January, after the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.

The elections on 2 March saw the unionist majority end and the DUP's lead over Sinn Féin cut from 10 seats to one. However, on 27 March the deadline passed to form a new power-sharing executive, after negotiations between the two main parties collapsed.

The Department of Finance announced that in the absence of a Budget Act, its permanent secretary David Sterling would use powers under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to release cash and resources to departments from April 2017 until a new administration is in place.

The legislation, effective from 29 March, limits the amount that may be approved to 75 per cent of the previous year’s budget. If a budget bill is not in place by the end of July 2017, the amount allocated may then be increased to 95 per cent of the previous year’s budget.

All departments were set to receive a letter from the Department of Finance setting out the resources they are entitled to draw down before the end of July, according to the Belfast Telegraph. They will all be advised to prepare for cuts, except the Department of Health, it said.

Sterling said the powers were an “interim measure” and did not mean that departmental budgets would be reduced for all of 2017-18. Once an executive agrees on a budget, departments will have access to the full level of funding available.

If an executive cannot be formed, the House of Commons may be forced to set Northern Ireland’s budget.

Earlier this year, senior academics warned that the executive collapse threatened the financial stability of Northern Ireland’s universities.

Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor of Ulster University, told Research Fortnight that the government and budget effectively being “on pause” left universities in the dark about their next financial year and could widen the funding gap between them and their English counterparts.


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UK > Politics > Parliament


MPs warn government not to cut overseas aid

The UK government needs to resist pressure to reduce its commitment to overseas aid, according to a House of Commons committee.

The warning from the Commons international Development Committee comes in the wake of a campaign led by some Conservatives and The Times and The Daily Mail urging the government to drop its target to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid to poorer countries.

MPs said in their report on UK aid, published on 28 March, that they regarded the Department for International Development’s spending on overseas development assistance as “effective”.

Nonetheless, Labour MP Stephen Twigg, chairman of the committee, said that there were concerns. He said that the committee felt there was a “lack of strategic direction” for ODA spending, now that more aid was being spent by other government departments.

For example, the £1.5-billion Grand Challenges Research Fund is an initiative led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which contributes to ODA spending.

The committee said that DFID should remain the principal department to have oversight and to coordinate all UK aid spending. It added that DFID decisions on the allocation of resources must be based on evidence.

The report also said that “numerous delays” to the department’s development reviews, such as its recent research review, have had “grave effects on a number of organisations and, we fear, on the quality of some programming”.

The research review, which was published in October 2016 and set out how DFID would invest an average of £390 million a year over the next four years, had very little detail despite a delay of nearly a year, the committee said.

It said that DFID should have presented more analysis of development research in the review.

The committee also said it was “a serious omission” to make no mention of the Sustainable Development Goals, in the Civil Society Partnership Review, which was also delayed. “It risks creating an impression that DFID is not focused on the SDGs; given that the goals are still at an early stage of implementation, the department’s commitment to them cannot be restated enough”, the report said.

On 28 March, likely in response to the committee report, DFID published a report outlining the ways it was contributing to the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals.


UK > Politics > Wales


HEFCW makes case for innovation budget

The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales is urging the Welsh government to reinvest in the innovation capabilities of its universities.

Innovation Nation, a report published by HEFCW on 29 March, aims to persuade the Welsh government to reverse severe cuts to HEFCW’s budget for innovation activities, which plummeted from £8 million in 2012-13 to zero in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

The council hopes that the report, which showcases how universities use knowledge exchange to drive business partnerships, will lead to more funding.

David Blaney, chief executive of HEFCW, said that the report made it clear that innovation was a good investment for government. “If you don’t invest in it you limit the extent to which the higher education system is able to make a societal or economic contribution to the country.”

The report named case studies under four themes: creating and safeguarding jobs; attracting investment; skills and work-based learning, and collaborative projects. These aim to show how innovation at Welsh universities have contributed to the goals set out in the 2015 Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act to improve social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being.

Examples included the Compound Semiconductor Centre, a partnership between Cardiff University and semiconductor company IQE that has created around 300 jobs in Wales, and the Sustainable Environment Research Centre, which is leading a £24-million consortium on hydrogen energy systems backed by European Union funding.

Blaney said that HEFCW would use the report as it works with the Welsh government to deliver on the recommendations of two higher education reviews—led by Ellen Hazelkorn, policy adviser to the Higher Education Authority of Ireland, and Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen. The reviews concluded that research and innovation were important to Wales, and both have been accepted by the Welsh government.

According to Blaney, the report would also feed into a review of government-funded research and innovation in Wales, carried out by Graeme Reid, chair of science policy at University College London. “My expectation on the back of this is that we’ll be able to move from strength to strength and develop on the contribution that innovation makes to our society,” Blaney said.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


UK > Universities


Research leaders call for ‘transitional deals’ for science

Learned academies and university groups have called on the UK and the European Union to strike transitional arrangements on research and higher education following the UK’s formal notification of its intention to exit the EU.

The UK government confirmed its intention to leave the EU in a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk on 29 March. The letter begins the process for departing the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. 

Learned academies, universities and mission groups have set out their demands for the next two years of Brexit negotiations, which should conclude with Britain leaving the bloc in March 2019.

According to the British Academy’s foreign secretary Ash Amin, the two-year process should include an early agreement on transitional arrangements for higher education, research and innovation, which “will ensure the UK remains a competitive environment and attractive proposition for the world’s most talented researchers”.

The protection of rights for EU citizens should be an “immediate priority” of the UK government in the negotiations, according to the Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan (pictured). “Ensuring we have the people and ideas from at home and abroad, the funding and the right regulatory frameworks will be essential to our ongoing success,” he said.

This message was echoed by Universities UK’s president Julia Goodfellow (pictured): “Given the UK will remain in the EU for the next two years, there will be no immediate change for universities, staff or students," she said. "There are, however, some immediate steps the government should take in this transitional period. Most urgently, the government should provide reassurance to EU nationals currently working in the university sector on their rights to reside and work in the UK post-exit.”  

As part of those early talks, the Academy of Social Sciences called on the UK government to negotiate full participation in Framework 9 as an associated country—the same status as held by Norway and Switzerland.

Any transitional arrangement for research is likely to include the UK’s participation in EU-funded nuclear fusion projects, after the UK government’s Article 50 letter confirmed that Britain would also cease being a full member of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

On 28 March, the UK science minister Jo Johnson met the EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas in Brussels to discuss alternative routes for Britain to continue participating in Euratom’s Iter nuclear fusion project, under construction in France. They are thought to have also discussed funding for the Joint European Torus (Jet), hosted at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire. Two-thirds of the centre’s budget­–around £60 million a year–is paid by Euratom.

Ian Chapman, the chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, told Research Fortnight that he remained confident that the future of Culham would be addressed early in the negotiations. “Hopefully, once the negotiations begin in earnest we will have more to say soon.”

In an open letter published on 29 March, the Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities reminded the remaining 27 EU countries that British universities were still eligible for Horizon 2020 funding until the end of the Article 50 process, and that the British government had committed to underwriting the payments of grants awarded while the UK was still a EU member. 

Meanwhile Alastair Sim, the director of Universities Scotland, made a plea for research collaborations with European partners to continue. “Keeping our research links with partners across the EU will be essential to continuing, and building on, the world-class nature of Scottish research. We also want to ensure that opportunities for outward mobility for staff and students, through programmes like Erasmus, will continue,” he said.


Mixed response to ‘homegrown’ medics plan

A controversial Department of Health consultation on expanding medical school places for UK students has been welcomed by some new providers of medical training.

Some aspects of the consultation document, which encourages new medical schools to meet a shortage of UK doctors, have been criticised. The document, published on 14 March, also suggested that international students pay an additional £110,000 towards their clinical placements, and that graduates sign “a return of service” agreement committing to working in the NHS for five years.

Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities, questioned the higher international student fees and asked whether this would risk making the UK less competitive. She added that decisions about where students train “should primarily be taken on the basis of quality”, rather than to meet NHS recruitment priorities.

Harrison Carter, who co-chairs the medical students committee at the British Medical Association, said that a policy of expanding places would not solve “the reasons why, after years of training to become doctors, fewer people are choosing to apply to or remain in the NHS”.

But some new providers are optimistic. The University of Buckingham became the first new medical school since the 1940s to open in 2015, and others plan to follow.

Ruth Jackson, pro vice-chancellor for medical school development at Anglia Ruskin University, told Research Fortnight that the university was halfway through the General Medical Council approval process, with December 2018 the proposed enrolment date for its first cohort of students.

Anglia Ruskin plans to bid for 100 of the 1,500 additional medical school places announced by Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016. According to the document, 500 of these places are for existing providers from 2018-19, but the government is consulting on how best to allocate the remaining 1,000 from 2019-20.

As a condition for opening, Anglia Ruskin has appointed the University of Dundee as the “grandparent university”, to which its students would be transferred in the event of course failure.

Jackson hopes that Anglia Ruskin has a good chance of success since the medical school aims to address several government priorities. There is no medical school in Essex except its postgraduate institute, which has struggled to retain graduates to work locally. Anglia Ruskin also has a high proportion of students from underrepresented backgrounds, and extending that approach to medicine “seems like a natural progression”, she said.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Manchester Met taps into think-tank wars

Manchester Metropolitan University has announced the creation of MetroPolis, a think tank to address policy challenges in the north of England.

The think tank, to be based at the university, was launched on 29 March by Manchester Met's chancellor Peter Mandelson, former Labour business secretary and one of the founders of New Labour.

Mandelson said the think tank would "provide a platform for government, policy-influencers and local authorities to access the kind of research that will enable informed decision-making”. It will will use research from disciplines across the university to address economic and social development challenges.

Metropolis joins a crowded field of Northern-facing think tanks, which include: centre-right ResPublica, which helped incubate the idea of the Northern Powerhouse; IPPR North; and the Industrial Strategy Commission, a joint initiative of the universities of Manchester and Sheffield. Former chancellor George Osborne has also launched his own Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank.  

Michael Taylor, co-founder of MetroPolis and external affairs adviser to the vice-chancellor at Manchester Met, said that for Manchester and the north of England, there was a “very real danger that important economic and social challenges will not receive sufficient attention and care from a government rather consumed—and overwhelmed—with the challenge of delivering Brexit”.

However, at a city and regional level and in public-service delivery, there are real pockets of innovation and dynamism, Taylor said. “Brexit may bring fears and concerns, but this shows how the north can be a vibrant and dynamic home for new policy ideas”.

Mandelson also announced a series of fellowships, placing academics at work within the offices of MPs, policy organisations, major charities, public-sector bodies and local and national government.

Mandelson said that MetroPolis and the fellowships would “underpin improvements in the delivery of effective public services”.


Cambridge awarded £40m for health research institute

The University of Cambridge has been chosen by the Health Foundation charity to host a health care research institute.

The Health Foundation announced, on 27 March, that it would be investing £40 million over ten years in the new institute at Cambridge, which will carry out research into how to improve patient care. Researchers will work with a wide range of partners across the UK including research organisation RAND Europe and Homerton College, Cambridge.

Mary Dixon-Woods, a professor of health services research at the university, will lead the institute, which will be formally launched within the year.

The institute has been set up to produce “practical, high-quality learning about how to improve patient care and will grow capacity in research skills in the NHS, academia and beyond”, the foundation said.

Jennifer Dixon, the charity's chief executive, said the grant was the foundation’s single biggest to date. “Faster learning and discovery is vital to achieving higher quality health care for patients at a sustainable cost,” she said. “Critically, the institute’s work will include understanding not only which interventions work, but also in which contexts and why.”

Dixon-Woods said the science of how to make improvements to health systems was under-developed. “This funding is a tremendous opportunity to produce new knowledge about how to improve care, experience and outcomes for patients,” she said.


UK > Research Excellence Framework


Royal Society under REF fire

The Royal Society’s suggestion that no researchers be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework has failed to gain traction among academic groups.

In its submission to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s REF technical consultation, which closed on 17 March, the society said that REF 2021 should focus on assessing institutions through their outputs and not their researchers (see Related Article).

But when Research Fortnight approached the main mission groups and a few learned societies, none responded favourably to the society’s idea. The consensus seems to be that decoupling staff from their outputs could lead to more concentration of funding among research-intensive universities. Such a change may also not result in a reduced workload, which is a core requirement for the next REF.

Tim Bradshaw, acting director of the Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities, said that the group was happy with the proposal that all research-active staff be entered into the REF. The Royal Society’s suggestion would depart too radically from previous REF iterations, he said. During a time of upheaval—such as Brexit and the changes coming from the higher education and research bill—stability in the REF was important, he said.

A source close to a different university mission group said that the Royal Society’s suggestion was “out of step” with the rest of academia. To ignore individual researchers and focus entirely on institutions would skew the system “unfairly” towards a handful of institutions that already have extensive research capital and facilities, and “effectively allow them to sit on their laurels in perpetuity,” the source said.

Similarly, Maddalaine Ansell, chief executive of the University Alliance group of business-focused universities, said that the REF needed to retain the ability to avoid further rewarding those institutions that already possess the most resources. She said that the Royal Society’s proposal would “create huge burdens for panels and an obfuscated picture of research excellence”.

Stephanie Bales, chairwoman of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators, said she was concerned that fully decoupling staff and outputs could mean that a higher volume of work would be submitted from a limited number of individuals.

HEFCE’s consultation included 44 open-ended questions on how to build on REF 2014 and incorporated the principles identified in the review of the REF, carried out by British Academy president Nicholas Stern.

One of Stern’s recommendations was to end “portability”, whereby a researcher moving jobs can transfer their outputs to the new institution, even if the bulk of the research was performed at the previous one.

However, in its consultation response, the British Academy was against ending portability, which many early-career researchers fear could act as a barrier to changing jobs. An academy representative said it would prefer to see Stern’s recommendations properly modelled, piloted and reviewed to avoid “unintended and potentially negative consequences”.

In contrast, James Wilsdon, outgoing chairman of the Campaign for Social Science, supported the Royal Society’s idea to focus on institutions. He said that trying to implement the consultation responses to the Stern review risked watering down any intended gains. The Royal Society’s suggestion that no individual researchers be submitted would offer a strong path through the problems, he added. “It’s not just hard Stern, its granite Stern.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


UK > Charities & Societies


Simon Wessely on mental health: No funding without public interest

For every government £1 spent on mental health research, the public donates 0.3p. Psychiatrist Simon Wessely tells Lila Randall why that must change.

For Simon Wessely, who is coming to the end of his time as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the cause of mental health research has a major problem. Whereas successive UK governments have promised to give mental illness higher priority, unlocking additional research funding also needs a step change in public support.

Wessely, a long-standing professor of psychiatry at King’s College London and co-director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, points out that cancer research receives £2.75 from the public for every pound contributed by the government. Each pound of government cash for heart and circulatory disorders attracts £1.35 from the public. 

“I think there will be a change when the public finally realise that opening new initiatives to address mental health problems will only be beneficial if they are backed by funding for research. Without this, specialists will never develop anything new and we won’t know what works,” Wessely says.

To address this gap, in 2013, the Wellcome Trust co-founded MQ, a charity intended to raise public awareness and public funding for mental health research. The charity produced a report UK Mental Health Research Funding in April 2015, which pointed out that mental illness affects 23 per cent of the population in the UK, but mental health research receives less than 6 per cent of the UK’s total spending on health research.

It’s early days but MQ is leading a high-profile campaign called I Swear in which prominent celebrities are calling for more public donations to research.

Wessely thinks that a parallel approach could be to explain to people why a lack of research could be detrimental to those who need mental health services. For example, he says, many wellbeing programmes offered by universities to students have not been tested or researched.

If for example a university carries out a survey and a proportion of students report having mental health problems then the institution feels the need to put together an action plan quickly. This, he says, is because of the duty of care, the fear of the regulator and the desire to do something to help students.

Such plans fall into the “something must be done” category, but often there is a lack of evidence to support the treatment. “Some will be working, some ineffective and some doing harm and none of us have a clue which ones without clinical trials,” Wessely stresses. 

He says a similar case for research can be made for mental health interventions in the military context. Last month, the King’s Centre for Military Health Research published the results of a five-year trial that tested the effectiveness of a mental-health screening programme for 10,000 members of the armed forces returned from war.

The study published in The Lancet on 16 February, concluded that such screening, which is used widely around the world, did not identify problems that soldiers may be experiencing. Wessely reveals that he had to withstand pressure from politicians who wanted to intervene before the results came out. “We had to fight against the political desire to do something at the very top level and go through all of the reasons why we should wait for the results of the trial,” he says.

Ultimately, he adds, the research results saved money that can be invested in areas that will make a difference, such as in improving treatment and decreasing stigma.

Wessely also says that the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council could do more to coordinate their research on mental health. For example they could work together to understand wellbeing in the workplace, which has “been discussed extensively, drained a lot of money and yet has not had any trials”.

When asked about the £1.4 billion promised by the then chancellor George Osborne in 2015 to improve child and adolescent mental health services he admits that none of it is likely to be spent on research. “We talk all the time about needing evidence for service transformation but the public and political attention cycle is so short and research is time consuming, so it is often the short-term solution that wins over research,” he says.

Simon Wessely

  • 2014-present President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • 2005 Author of Shell Shock to PTSD: Military psychiatry from 1900 to the Gulf war
  • 2003 Founded King’s Centre for Military Health Research
  • 1996 Director of King’s College Gulf War Illness Research Unit
  • 1994 Director of King’s College Chronic Fatigue Research Unit
  • 1993 University of London doctoral thesis on crime and schizophrenia
  • 1985 First paper Dementia and Mrs Thatcher published in the BMJ

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


UK > Innovation


Clark orders review of Catapult centres

But insiders warn ‘you can’t change a strategy every three years’

Business secretary Greg Clark is planning an independent review of Innovate UK’s Catapult centres, amid concerns in Whitehall that they are not fully aligned with the government’s industrial strategy.

Research Fortnight understands that Clark delivered the news in a meeting with the chief executives of the 11 catapults on 7 March. That review of the catapults’ policy and funding model will examine the centres’ objectives, as well as their “sector focus” and alignment with the government’s industrial strategy.

The name of the review’s chairman and its timescale have not yet been revealed. It is, however, understood that this review will also incorporate an ongoing quinquennial review of the first seven catapults. These are the centres focused on high-value manufacturing, cell therapy, digital technologies, transport systems, satellite applications, offshore renewable energy, and future cities.

The quinquennial review is expected to report to ministers by the autumn. An additional internal review—an economic analysis of the impact of these seven centres on their sectors—is running in parallel until 2020.

The potential impact of Brexit could also be evaluated as part of the independent review, as some catapults—especially the high-value manufacturing centre—could be hit by loss of funding if the UK stops participating in European Union Framework programmes.

Created by the last Labour government and loosely modelled on Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, the 11 catapults are expected to raise funds equally from three sources—core UK public funding, R&D contracts from businesses and collaborative applied R&D projects from UK and European funders. However, not all of the centres have found this model easy to follow. 

Leading figures in the founding of Innovate UK have given a cautious reaction to these developments. Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University and founding head of Innovate UK, said: “It would be a big mistake if the review is carried out from a very critical point of view because the government has become negative about catapults. If, however, the review is just an attempt by the secretary of state to ensure that the network is going in the right direction, is aligned with the industrial strategy, and its funding is right, it could be helpful.”

David Bott, a former director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board, Innovate UK’s predecessor, told Research Fortnight that he would welcome a closer alignment between the industrial strategy and how resources at catapults are deployed. However, he added that the primary failure of government policy on innovation was a “lack of consistency”. He said: “A strategy is not something you change every three years, especially without any research and analysis of evidence.”

Taking rushed decisions on the future of the centres should be avoided, said Graeme Reid, chair of science policy at University College London. “This country has a history of setting up economic development bodies and then tearing them up before they have had time to settle down and work. I do hope that we are not going to see the same thing on catapult centres.”

At an evidence hearing held by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on 21 March, Julia King, a cross-bench peer and non-executive director of the Offshore Renewable Energy catapult, pressed UK Research and Innovation’s chief executive designate Mark Walport for more details on the review.

Walport replied that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was still deciding what form the review should take. “This would be primarily a BEIS responsibility but working closely with the nascent UKRI. The catapults are quite heterogeneous so each is going to have to be reviewed in a bespoke fashion as well as an overall review of how the model is working,” he said.

A spokesman for Innovate UK said that the review would “help ensure that the network is well positioned to support the ambitions of industry and deliver maximum impact”.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Brexit brings uncertainty for genome editing, peers told

Genome-editing technology developed in the UK will only become commercialised if the country has access to the European market, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has heard.

At an evidence session on genomics and genome editing on 29 March, the committee heard from Waseem Qasim, professor of cell and gene therapy at the Institute of Child Health, Alastair Kent, director of the campaign group Genetic Alliance UK, and Kathy Niakin, a developmental biologist from the Francis Crick Institute.

The witnesses agreed that the UK's Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had a progressive attitude towards taking new therapies to trial. In contrast, the European Medicines Agency had different and “more onerous” regulations.

But the academics stressed that there were now a number of uncertainties ahead as the UK  prepares to leave the European Union. 

Access to the raw materials needed to develop products could be limited, they said. Importing and paying for reagents could become more difficult as the majority are purchased from Germany and France.

Furthermore, United States drug manufacturers working in Europe will need to decide how much of their business operations will remain in the UK. Witnesses doubted whether companies will want to operate in both locations. 

However, Niakin said: “One benefit to the UK would be increased funding in science. This area of research [genome editing] could really flourish because we would be eligible to apply for the funding.”

Kent suggested that Brexit could attract opportunities outside of the UK in terms of early stage clinical development. But to be a success, from an industry point of view, the European market needed to be open to the UK, he said. 


UK > Careers


Global challenges, the Rolex way

Andrew Bastawrous was still doing his PhD when he applied for a prestigious Rolex award, he tells Antoaneta Roussi.

The biennial Rolex Awards for Enterprise support young people looking to tackle global challenges. The 2018 round is open to anyone who will be between the ages of 18 and 30 on deadline day, 30 June. Five winners will each receive 100,000 Swiss francs (£80,800), publicity support for their project and, last but not least, a Rolex watch.

Projects must be broadly in the areas of the environment, applied science and technology or exploration, and have the capacity to improve lives or protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

Andrew Bastawrous joined the roll-call of previous winners in 2016 with his project to develop an ophthalmology mobile app for use in the developing world. It helps diagnose eye conditions and connects to the wider healthcare system to improve access to treatment.

What are the benefits of the Rolex award?

One of the most valuable things for me was being able to speak to people completely outside my area about the issue that I’m concerned about—unnecessary vision loss around the world.

How did you hear about the award?

I was invited by someone from Rolex to their 2014 awards event in London—which featured the young laureates competition and some fantastic projects—so I went to the dinner and someone suggested I should apply to the next round. I submitted my application and it went from there.

What was the application process like?

It starts with an explanation of your personal history, the project, where the project is at and ambitions. I had to be honest about the challenges I faced and provide some referees who could independently verify what we’ve done. It wasn’t so much an application, it was more a “who are you and what are you doing” questionnaire.

How competitive is the award?

I think Rolex received around 2,200 applications for five awards in 2016.

What happened after you were shortlisted?

I had three Skype interviews, and for one I had to prepare in advance a 90-second video explaining what we’d do if we were successful. Then 30 of us were invited to Geneva, Switzerland, to present in front of a rather amazing panel, which included Nobel laureates and Olympic gold medalists.

What did you present to the panel?

We were given three minutes to explain our project. After that we went into 45-minute interviews with four of the panel, where they questioned us in depth. My panel had an incredible mix of people, including a chancellor of the biggest university in China and a Nobel prizewinner for his work in optics.

Did anyone ask about the business aspects?

Yes, there was a social entrepreneur who asked a huge amount about the business model and how we were going to make it sustainable and how we measured our impact. So they were really wide-ranging questions, which made me feel like they’d clearly understood the work that we were doing.

Tell me about your project?

I was working as an eye surgeon in the UK but my interest had always been in international development. An opportunity came up to move to Kenya in 2011 to do a PhD with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. By going there, I realised just how difficult it is to reach those people most in need, because they were off the medical grid away from the main infrastructure.

That realisation spurred your inspiration?

Yes, we had to take lots of heavy, high-end equipment to these remote places in order to provide services. It didn’t make any sense. So during my PhD I built software prototypes for different apps to examine the eye, and validated them against the standard equipment I was taking with me. And we showed it to be highly comparable.

What happened when you heard that you’d won?

Rolex sent a film crew to make a short documentary on the work in Kenya. Then we had the award ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles where they host the Oscars. It was quite an experience.

What’s your advice for shortlisted candidates?

You’ll meet such a strong panel, that I feel that if you need to prepare for the interview, it might not work out. You will need to know your subject inside out; it has to be something you’re living and breathing.

Andrew Bastawrous is assistant professor in international eye health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Nakuru, Kenya. A longer version of this article appeared in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. This article also appeared in Research Fortnight.


UK > Views of the UK


Heed warnings on teaching assessment before it’s too late

As proposed, the TEF is like TripAdvisor for universities. The Lords were right to raise a red flag, says Anna Traianou.

On 8 March, the House of Lords backed an amendment to the higher education and research bill stating that a university’s performance in the Teaching Excellence Framework should not be ranked as gold, silver or bronze, and that marks in the TEF should not be linked to the freedom to raise tuition fees. The link between fees and assessing teaching quality is central to the bill, so it is unlikely that the House of Commons will uphold this amendment. If so, an opportunity to avert disaster will have been lost.

The TEF aims to evaluate teaching by using three datasets: graduate employment record and salaries, student retention, and student satisfaction. The weighting applied to each metric will be decided by the Office for Students (OfS), a new government body with the power to override universities’ royal charters and remove the right to award degrees, or even the title of a university, without any parliamentary scrutiny.

And yet these metrics do not constitute a direct, or even an effective indirect, measure of the quality of teaching. They have even less legitimacy than measures used to assess school performance, which are centred on test results. Whether the tests capture anything valuable about pupil learning is open to question, but at least there is some relationship between the metric and educational experience. 

As Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, pointed out in his lecture to the Council for the Defence of British Universities in January, graduate employment and retention depend largely on an institution’s reputation. Student satisfaction, meanwhile, may be an indication of grade inflation rather than good—that is to say challenging—teaching.

Both school and TEF metrics are designed to establish transparent accountability regimes, with practitioners required to demonstrate continually that what they do is effective and efficient. In schools, metrics have to a large extent encouraged teaching to the test. The effect on university teaching is likely to be even more damaging. 

Voting on amending the bill, many peers argued that the TEF’s approach was too untried to justify a link to fees. Many academics have argued that the TEF could encourage forms of teaching designed to maximise student satisfaction, via unchallenging teaching that results in undeserved high grades. In this way, one of the main purposes of higher education—to raise the level of students’ knowledge and understanding—would be undermined.

Setting up the TEF alongside the Research Excellence Framework may also drive a further wedge between teaching and research. Some universities may decide to focus primarily on teaching, with a view to attracting students. Others may focus more on research, perhaps tolerating large class sizes and closing courses to concentrate resources. Many universities are likely to force academics into teaching-only or research-only posts, severing the stimulating interaction between the two activities.

There is nothing wrong with seeking to improve the quality of teaching. But we must be clear about what this means: tutors and students engaging in challenging work and discussions that further knowledge and learning.

Many students are deeply committed to their education. I know, as a lecturer, how passionately they show this in classroom discussions and through their course evaluations. University College London discovered this in 2015, when students disrupted its open day to protest against the closure of a course on the philosophy of race.

The TEF puts this kind of engagement at risk. If teaching is viewed as a product to be assessed by customers via TripAdvisor-like ratings, then good teaching and genuine learning will decline. 

Most universities have agreed to participate in the TEF: some because, “We feel we have been backed into a corner” to quote University of Warwick’s vice-chancellor Stuart Croft, others because it will “challenge the sector’s hierarchy and the ‘toxic legacy’ of domestic league tables”, in the words of Edward Peck, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.

These responses do not seem adequate to the task. As David Blunkett made clear in the Lords debate, vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK and GuildHE, which represents small and specialist institutions, have made a Faustian pact with the government in their support of the bill. The effect will be to increase government meddling in higher education, in the name of making universities serve the economy.

In this way, the establishment of the TEF threatens to press further a deep change in academic culture, one in which rigorous and critical practice will be evicted from undergraduate courses, and the contribution of university education to democracy eroded. It must be resisted.

Anna Traianou is reader in educational studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Lack of unity limits social sciences’ policy clout

Whoever becomes the next head of the Campaign for Social Sciences is on a hiding to nothing, says David Walker.

Radio 4’s head of arts, James Runcie, recently said that he wants to rebalance the station’s coverage towards culture and away from science. Even though this overlooks the BBC’s umpteen dedicated music and arts channels, Runcie’s assertion that there has been a “renaissance” of science broadcasting in the UK would meet wide assent.

The metrics of influence are imprecise. Nonetheless, science’s corporate spokespeople, headed by the Royal Society, can claim much of the credit for science disciplines’ rising profile, not to mention public support for research.

The society—together with the Royal Academy of Engineering, subject-based institutes and societies, and the Campaign for Science and Engineering—gives science, technology, engineering and mathematics political and policy heft. Behind the scenes it’s like herding cats, but in public, STEM presents a unified collective interest, masterminded from Carlton House Terrace.

In comparison, the social sciences are also-rans—or maybe not even at the races. They don’t have corporate clout—something the Campaign for Social Science, set up in frank admiration of CaSE in 2011—has done little to change. The campaign is now looking for a chair, and whoever gets the job is on a hiding to nothing.

It’s not that they lack a cause or a case. Productivity depends on institutions, business practices and behaviour: the province of social science. In reality, Treasury officials don’t know how to increase UK productivity but—thanks partly to the image of STEM unity projected by the science establishment—they are convinced that science is the answer.

During his time as government chief scientific adviser, Mark Walport tried hard to remember the social sciences and humanities. Social science’s lack of influence, however, meant that the message never quite got across.

Between 2014 and 2016, I worked at the Academy of Social Sciences. It dates from the 1980s when, feeling oppressed by Margaret Thatcher’s government, the social sciences formed the Academy of Learned Societies in the Social Sciences, which has since morphed into the AcSS.

The problem, I realised, isn’t lack of good will; it’s structural. Despite its name, the AcSS doesn’t represent economics, for example, the most intellectually successful and public of the social sciences. Its professional body, rare among the social sciences to be warranted ‘royal’, stays apart.

When eminent biologists speak, physicists assent in the name of science. When sociologists speak, economists probably aren’t listening. Even if they were, they would not see a common interest. Maybe economists’ brush with post-crash humility will change things, but the much-promised interdisciplinarity has yet to manifest in the institutions of social science.

The AcSS also struggles with the ‘two academies’ problem. The British Academy took to social science late and—unlike its neighbour in Carlton House Terrace—is an awkward and hesitant lobbyist.

Even so, it is a custodian of elite status: academics, who spend their lives making qualitative distinctions, get very upset at any insinuation that there’s a pecking order, but the AcSS has never quite thrown off the impression that it’s the British Academy’s B-team.

That may sound trivial, but it deprives public debate of a staunch advocate for the sciences of behaviour and society. The campaign’s impotence was underlined last year, when the AcSS decreed it should take no position on the the UK’s European Union referendum.

How can the campaign succeed when the British Academy holds itself aloof? Imagine CaSE without the Royal Society’s approval and participation.

We did try. With money from the publisher Sage, the campaign did some handy advocacy before the 2015 general election. The outgoing chairman, James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, sought to inject some worldly wisdom into proceedings. But the campaign’s profile remains dim.

In cash terms, the institutional shenanigans of social science may not matter that much. Funding allocations to the research councils are made primarily with STEM in mind, but the formulas used mean that the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council also get their share.

The impact of voicelessness is not on the pocket, but in public life. Big contemporary research issues, such as those around data, get discussed without corporate contribution from social science.

Theresa May’s ministers talk enthusiastically about social mobility and commend research. Behaviour, including voting, is the very stuff of contemporary debate and policymaking. But for institutional and lobbying purposes, the social science that ought to explicate and elucidate these issues barely exists.

David Walker is the former head of policy at the Academy of Social Sciences.

Something to add? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Challenge fund must give the public a say in innovation

More money for developing new technologies should prompt careful thought about what technologies we want, says Harry Armstrong.

It should be obvious that the initial £270 million for the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund announced in chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring budget will do a lot to drive further collaboration between business and the UK science base to address some of the big challenges of our time.

Less obviously, but perhaps just as importantly, the fund also creates a chance to open up and involve the public in a more honest debate around the benefits and drawbacks of innovation and technology.

Innovation is a critical engine of social progress and economic development. In the never-ending race to develop the ideas and products that every company—or even nation—needs if it is to avoid being left behind, innovation itself has become the goal.

As a result, many organisations promote innovation as a good in itself, rather than as a means of achieving broader social or economic goals. While businesses and policymakers are keen to encourage innovation, there is too little discussion about what good innovation looks like or how to do innovation responsibly.

We must think more seriously about what good innovation looks like, and more carefully about the ethical and social implications of disruptive innovations and technologies in both the private and public sectors.

Very few innovations could ever be described as inherently bad or good. But there are always winners and losers. As such, the important questions are: who benefits, who loses, and who takes on the risks?

Historically, neither the benefits nor the risks of innovation have been evenly distributed. The same goes for the power to shape how things progress.

Too often, we think that the shape and direction of technological change is out of our control, that we must just be swept along by its currents—“Science finds, industry creates and man conforms”, to quote the motto of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. But we have a lot more control over technological progress than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.

The government and the public can and must have a role in interrogating and influencing technological development. Important questions should not be left to—frankly inadequate—market forces or simply avoided altogether.

The challenge fund is an opportunity to take such a role, not only through setting the right challenges, but also through public engagement and inclusion.

Past work by Nesta has shown how discerning the public is when it comes to innovation. Most people in the UK are very open to new ideas, but they also want to understand what the impacts and benefits will be, and they are sceptical of any claim that new is always better. So the challenge is to understand the different types of good that an innovation might create and then guide it towards the greatest potential benefit. Deciding on what that greatest potential benefit consists of has to be done with the public.

Even with hindsight, it’s not easy to work out what the broader impacts of an innovation might be. Trying to anticipate how a new idea might develop, let alone what kinds of benefits or costs it might create, is particularly difficult.

We have to manage a great deal of uncertainty. Something that seems undesirable or worthless in the short term could create hugely valuable opportunities in the longer term.

Then there is always the question of when to intervene. An early intervention is more likely to shape an idea, but is also more likely to limit its development. Later on, one has a better idea of an innovation’s potential and impacts, but less scope to influence it.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund offers a priceless opportunity to set a direction of travel and engage the public at the right time. There are steps we can take to begin to understand potential impact in advance.

Foresight methods and technology assessments can give clues to how an innovation might develop or who it might affect, letting us know what to keep an eye on in the future.

Ultimately, whatever approach we take, the important thing is to keep measuring the impacts as an idea develops. At present there is far too little evaluation, beyond measuring market readiness, and yet understanding the broader impacts is critical to building informed public trust and support.

That trust will, in turn, be essential if we are to reap the full public and economic benefits from the new technologies the chancellor wants to drive investment in.

Harry Armstrong is head of futures at the innovation agency Nesta.

Something to add? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Ottoline Leyser: No researchers should be submitted to the REF

The Royal Society believes that assessment of research quality must focus on institutions if it is to create the right incentives, says Ottoline Leyser.

A central purpose of the Research Excellence Framework is to determine the size of the funding councils’ block grant to each university. The grant is awarded to institutions, so it makes sense that the REF should focus on assessing institutions in the round.

That is why the Royal Society is today calling for the REF to shift its emphasis from the work of individual researchers to a portfolio approach, illustrating the breadth and depth of an institution’s research environment.

The REF already evaluates research environment—it accounted for 15 per cent of the mark in the 2014 evaluation. Universities submitted a narrative statement explaining how they created a high-quality research environment and, in parallel, research outputs and examples of wider impact.

These elements of the current system are entirely appropriate. However, the interaction between the REF’s rules and other pressures on universities creates substantial problems.

In particular, the system centres on the inclusion or exclusion of individual academics. Most of those included must submit four research outputs produced during the assessment period, which are scored.

Their summed scores are the biggest single contributor to the REF outcome. A university’s block grant is a product of its REF score and the number of academics submitted. In effect, the system monetises academics with four top-rank outputs.

This has led universities to take a risk-averse approach to selecting outputs, focusing on papers published in high-ranking journals. The definition of excellence is limited to world-leading discoveries, rather than taking in the breadth and depth of activity needed to drive a sustainable and effective research endeavour.

It is not surprising that universities have appointed more and more academics with the ‘right’ sort of outputs. Staff not fitting the mould are undervalued and crucial activities have been neglected. For example, papers describing negative or confirmatory results are unlikely to score highly in the REF, so there is little incentive to write them up—meaning that others will repeat dead-end experiments or unnecessary replications.

Last year’s Stern review identified these perverse incentives. Its proposals, including making the REF more institutionally focused by breaking the link between individual academics and their outputs, form the basis of a consultation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that ends today.

However, the proposed solutions are still focused on submitting individual researchers. This immediately revives questions about who they should be and how many outputs each should submit. The link between academics and their outputs remains.

No researchers should be submitted to the REF. None. All that is needed is a measure of research volume, to determine how many outputs should be submitted in each subject area and to calculate the size of the block grant.

Although not a trivial task, such a measure could be derived from data already collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. It could include academic staff, support staff and researchers at all career stages. There would be no need to decide who qualifies as research active or independent, who is employed on a specific day, or who has special circumstances.

For each subject area, this number would dictate how many research outputs should be submitted. Only outputs where a significant part of the research was conducted at that university should be eligible. Under these rules, multiple universities could submit the same output.

These changes will remove many of the problems associated with submitting individuals, but they won’t address the corrosive focus on particular types of output.

A high-quality research portfolio doesn’t consist only of groundbreaking discoveries. It contains work that cements initial findings, integrates existing work, develops tools and resources such as databases, engages diverse groups and nurtures the next generation of researchers.

Some of these elements feature in the statements on research environment, but they are absent from the output portfolio. They should not be.

REF panels should go beyond simply judging outputs, one by one, in isolation. They should provide a holistic assessment of the portfolio of outputs, recognising the importance of breadth and depth in output types. Such an approach would more robustly assess the quality of the research environment built by each institution, ease pressures on careers and morale, and provide the incentives for diverse, interdisciplinary and collaborative work.

Discussions with researchers show how deeply embedded our assumptions about the REF have become. Debate has focused on how fairly to include everyone, when it should have been about how fairly to include no one. Only a system with this as a fundamental principle can deliver a REF that is fit for purpose.

Ottoline Leyser is chairwoman of the Royal Society Science Policy Advisory Group and professor of plant development at the University of Cambridge.


Research Fortnight View: Don’t shoot the messenger

Royal Society’s REF plan deserves a pilot test

There can be few more challenging jobs than managing the next Research Excellence Framework. Now that the technical consultation has closed, REF manager Kim Hackett and deputy manager Anna Lang, of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, must chart a course through the thicket of responses, some 370 in all. Moreover they must do so without unduly antagonising the guardians of UK research and higher education.

These include organisations such as the Russell Group; interested in ensuring that its 24 members can maintain, and ideally increase, both REF rank and quality-related funding. Furthermore the leadership of many universities, irrespective of size, like the fact that the REF gives them the tools to ‘performance manage’ their academic staff.

The REF staff must also be mindful of another team: the one preparing to lead UK Research and Innovation. UKRI’s interest is manifold. First it will absorb part of the English funding council, which will re-emerge as Research England. Second UKRI will at some stage want to consider the relationship between the research councils and Research England.

Ranged against the universities are organisations representing individual researchers, notably the scholarly academies. They want a system perceived as less coercive and that better incentivises researchers to excel. This reasoning makes sense: researchers are less likely to perform well if they believe that their every move is being watched, Orwellian style.

It was in this spirit that the Royal Society’s submission, encouraged the funding councils to consider removing the column that says “individual” and instead turning the REF into an institution-level assessment.

On page 22 of this issue, the society’s policy lead Ottoline Leyser explains that, among its faults, the existing REF risks exacerbating an ongoing crisis in replication. “Papers describing negative or confirmatory results are unlikely to score highly in the REF, so there is little incentive to write them up—meaning that others will repeat dead-end experiments or unnecessary replications,” she says.

The society’s proposal deserves further exploration. It does of course raise further questions. Identifying how to measure research volume without taking individuals into account is no trivial task. Moreover we would agree with those who say that data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, as it stands, is a less than reliable guide to research activity.

Fortunately the UK is well endowed with internationally excellent, and in many cases world leading, science and innovation policy expertise. Many of the brightest and best will surely relish creating an excellence framework that assesses the contribution of an institution to the story of discovery and invention. The fact that we do not yet have an instant answer to this question is not a reason to reject the idea out of hand, as so many have done (see Related Article).

The Royal Society has rightly challenged Hackett and Lang to think big. We hope they will rise to the challenge.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Interesting if true

Back page gossip from the 29 March issue of Research Fortnight

Meet the boss UKRI chief executive designate Mark Walport is embarking on a roadshow to meet his future troops. He began in Swindon on 13 March, and is due to speak to staff at the MRC offices in London, HEFCE’s headquarters in Bristol and at the Harwell campus near Oxford. An immediate task, he reassured his Swindon audience, was to “get out and communicate more clearly”. According to Walport, “If we’re not clear in our communications, then you can’t blame people if they have misunderstandings.” Your correspondent could not agree more, and would like to extend an invitation to bring the roadshow to Research Fortnight’s Shoreditch offices.

G Plan A UK researcher concerned about loss of European Union citizenship can forget about Plan B or Plan C. What you need, according to Terry O’Connor, head of comms at the Science and Technology Facilities Council is Plan G: G for Grenada. It seems that this independent island nation in the West Indies is offering low-cost passports that grant you visa-free access to 135 countries. According to Grenada’s government office, there are more advantages: no income, wealth or inheritance tax and no need to visit.

Astro-political Seventy-five-year-old Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking seems to have decided there’s no point in holding back. In a recent media interview, he said hard Brexit should be resisted, called Donald Trump a “demagogue”; Jeremy Corbyn “not a very strong leader”, and predicted that the Labour Party, which he backed to win in 2015, had no chance of winning the next election under Corbyn’s leadership. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he has accepted an invitation from Richard Branson to exit Earth and enter space whenever Branson-branded flights become a reality.

Sad spires Oxford students are among the UK’s unhappiest, with 22 per cent of those at the city’s two universities saying that they regret enrolling, according to a survey by accommodation provider Sodexo. In contrast, the happiest students are found in Belfast, Brighton and Coventry. The survey asked thousands of students how they felt about their universities’ standards of education, nightlife, takeaway options and their stress level.

Flexi-time Following George Osborne’s elevation to editor of London’s Evening Standard, several readers have been in touch suggesting that we, too, should embrace the age of the celebrity editor. As it happens, we have an opening to edit our sister title Research Europe (see Related Link). But while applications from politicians would not be discouraged, we would like to point out that it is not possible to edit a daily title while holding down four or five other jobs.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Europe > Horizon 2020


Research becoming more citizen-centred, Commission says

Members of the public are becoming increasingly involved in the research process at different stages and levels, a European Commission official has said.

Public participation in research design, conduct and evaluation is taking on “new relevance” for the Commission, according to its director of research policy development, Kurt Vandenberghe. He was speaking on 28 March at an event in Brussels on citizen engagement in societal challenges. 

It is “very important” to the Commission that in future it involves citizens in developing research policy, in co-designing research programmes and in setting the agenda for research projects, Vandenberghe said. 

“The link between science and democracy in our current times is a very important one, if we look at what is happening in the world. But also science that is more responsive to society, to society’s expectations,” he added. 

This increased relevance of citizens to the Commission has been brought about by developments in digital technology that in turn have enabled greater openness in both research and policymaking, Vandenberghe said. 

“Thanks to digital technology and capacities we can do a lot more in real time with citizens. We also see a new relevance in the context of the open science agenda, which is a revolution in science,” he said. 

“I think we need to come to a new concept of scientific excellence, where it’s not so much the publications that matter but really the contribution to solutions for the economy and society that matters.” 

The Commission is working on “a whole series of actions” related to these developments, Vandenberghe said, including the creation of alternative metrics for evaluating research and of new career incentives for researchers. 

However, the Commission needs to improve its interactions with members of the public to become more citizen-centred, he added. 

“We see through our interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 that we’re very relevant for our stakeholders [research organisations]. Where we have a difficulty is in demonstrating the relevance for society of our investments. We know, we believe, we hope there is impact, but we have a hard time demonstrating this,” he said. 

Other speakers at the event, which was organised by the European Parliament’s Science and Technology Options Assessment panel, took up this point. Eva Kaili, a Greek MEP who chairs STOA, said that the EU has a communication problem because most members of the public haven’t heard of the EU research programme and don’t know whether they should care about it. 

The EU needs to get citizens more engaged by speaking more clearly about aspects of research that affect their lives, Kaili said. This could involve working with journalists through a media hub to communicate research debates in simple language, she said. 

Vendenberghe agreed with this assessment, saying that reaching out to citizens who are not part of organised civil society is a “big, big question” for the EU. 

“You can’t expect a citizen who has a lot of other things on his or her mind to come up with a meaningful opinion about the European programmes, so we need to find a new way, much more open, much more enticing for citizens to want to be part of this,” he said.


Europe > Politics


Parliament set to call for three-year limit on Brexit transition

The UK should be allowed just three years to transition from EU membership to a free trade agreement, a leaked draft European Parliament motion says.

The draft motion, which was published by The Guardian newspaper today and carries today’s date, was drawn up by senior MEPs including Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament's Brexit lead. If passed it would not be binding for the EU, but would strongly influence the Brexit proceedings.

It says that any transitional agreement between the EU and the UK “should not exceed three years”, and that in scope such an agreement “can never be a substitute for Union membership”—meaning that it should be less beneficial.

Any future trade deal between the EU and the UK cannot be agreed until after the UK leaves the EU and must not contain “any piecemeal or sectorial provisions” that would give UK organisations preferential access to the single market, including for financial services, the document says. However, the future relationship between the EU and UK “should be balanced, comprehensive and serve the interests of citizens of both parties“, it adds.

If the UK requests to participate in any EU programmes after Brexit it will have to do so as a so-called third country, the draft says. This would be welcome for “a number of programmes, such as Erasmus”, it continues.

It also says that agreement should be reached as quickly as possible on the relocation of the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority, which are currently based in the UK.

The UK’s permanent representative to the EU, Tim Barrow, delivered a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk today notifying the EU of Britain’s intention to leave the bloc. In response, the Council said in a statement that its first priority in negotiations will be to minimise uncertainty for EU citizens, businesses and member states.

The Council will now adopt guidelines for the negotiations, setting out the EU's overall positions and principles. These guidelines will take the Parliament's position into account.


UK and Germany underscore post-Brexit partnership

Research organisations in Germany and the UK have reiterated their commitment to research collaboration, ahead of the UK's triggering of its departure from the EU.

Representatives from the UK and Germany's national science academies, the Royal Society and the Leopoldina, as well as from the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, published a joint statement on 27 March “to underline their continued commitment to the pursuit of international scientific research”.

“We are concerned to maintain and build upon the dynamism of our current scientific collaborations at a time of major change in Europe,” the statement said. The organisations warned that the UK's exit from the EU, which is being triggered by the UK government today, should not disrupt these collaborations.

“European collaboration has greatly strengthened European science. The EU, with its commitment to pursuing a free marketplace for scientists and researchers, and its funding of scientific endeavours through programmes such as Horizon 2020, has contributed substantially to this progress. We are concerned that the negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU do not disturb this free exchange of ideas and talent,” the statement said.

Science depends on the free flow of ideas and researchers, and these flows should continue after Brexit, the academies added.

“Researchers should be able to travel so that they can discuss, learn and collaborate across projects and national boundaries, combining their multinational strengths. Indeed, the ability of a country to welcome and thereby attract global talent is fundamental to the strength of its science base.”

The UK government has said that it will reach an agreement over its future relationship with the EU that will bring an end to the free movement of people between the country and the bloc. However, it has also said that it will seek to continue to collaborate with EU member states on “major science, research and technology initiatives”, and that it will welcome immigrants with skills and expertise.

A recent Royal Society report showed that Germany is the UK's number one European research collaborator in terms of article co-authorship.


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