Re­search coun­cils to call fund­ing shots un­der UKRI, says MRC nom­i­nee

Fiona Watt keen to of­fer some ‘com­fort’ be­fore shift to um­brella body. Rachael Pells writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

It has been many months in the mak­ing, but the UK’S new re­search um­brella body – which brings to­gether the coun­try’s seven re­search coun­cils along­side In­no­vate UK and the re­search func­tions cur­rently held by the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Fund­ing Coun­cil for Eng­land – is pre­par­ing to launch.

The for­ma­tion of UK Re­search and In­no­va­tion, which will over­see the dis­tri­bu­tion of £6 bil­lion in fund­ing each year, has sparked sig­nif­i­cant de­bate among lead­ing sci­en­tists about how much in­de­pen­dence will be re­tained by the in­di­vid­ual re­search coun­cils un­der the new struc­ture.

But Fiona Watt (pic­tured, be­low), the gov­ern­ment’s pre­ferred can­di­date to be­come ex­ec­u­tive chair of the Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil, has sought to re­as­sure the aca­demic com­mu­nity, in­sist­ing that in­di­vid­ual re­search coun­cils “will not lose their au­ton­omy in the way that money is spent” to UKRI over­seers.

The ma­jor shake-up of the UK’S re­search in­fra­struc­ture is ac­com­pa­nied by con­cerns over a per­ceived tight­en­ing of con­trol over re­search by the gov­ern­ment, with some sec­tor lead­ers high­light­ing the for­mer role of Sir Mark Wal­port, UKRI’S chief ex­ec­u­tive, as chief sci­en­tific ad­viser.

Pro­fes­sor Watt, a world-renowned ex­pert on skin stem cells, said that th­ese con­cerns were un­founded.

“The di­rect in­ter­ac­tion with gov­ern­ment will be at one re­move [and], for me per­son­ally, that’s fine,” Pro­fes­sor Watt told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion. “I’m cer­tainly not go­ing into the role feel­ing [like] I’m go­ing to lack the power to con­trol the bud­get.”

Pro­fes­sor Watt, who will con­tinue in her cur­rent role di­rect­ing the Cen­tre for Stem Cells and Re­gen­er­a­tive Medicine at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, ac­knowl­edged that there was “some un­cer­tainty” for ex­ist­ing MRC em­ploy­ees, but ar­gued that this re­lated to “what the terms and con­di­tions will be of their em­ploy­ment and how their ex­ist­ing roles will map into this big­ger struc­ture”.

“I’m very keen to pro­vide some clar­ity, sta­bil­ity and com­fort that al­though things are go­ing to change, it’s not a case of ran­sack­ing a well­struc­tured or­gan­i­sa­tion,” she said. Re­fer­ring to the up­lift in re­search fund­ing planned un­der the gov­ern­ment’s in­dus­trial strat­egy, “it’s more a case of look­ing at the op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded by more money in the sys­tem”, Pro­fes­sor Watt said.

Pro­fes­sor Watt ad­mit­ted that se­cur­ing the job was a “sur­prise” since she was con­vinced that she had only been in­vited to ap­ply “to fill some sort of gen­der quota”.

“It’s a re­ally un­prece­dented time in UK sci­ence,” she added. “The Brexit vote caused a lot of up­set to a lot of sci­en­tists be­cause we’re very in­ter­na­tional in out­look. I wasn’t ex­actly look­ing for a new job, but with all the changes tak­ing place, I went for an in­ter­view with the at­ti­tude that it was like a per­fect storm…what­ever hap­pened, it couldn’t just be busi­ness as usual and I found that very in­ter­est­ing.”

Think pos­i­tive

Rather than suc­cumb to me­di­a­blown pes­simism over the pos­si­ble con­se­quences of Brexit, she sug­gested that sci­en­tists see the chang­ing re­search en­vi­ron­ment as a “pos­i­tive pic­ture” of the shape of things to come. “The cre­ation of Ukri…makes a lot of sense,” she said. “On top of that, the an­nounce­ment that the gov­ern­ment is to com­mit more of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct to re­search and de­vel­op­ment is mas­sive for me. I re­mem­ber lob­by­ing [for­mer sci­ence min­is­ter] Lord Sains­bury to do this when he came to a con­fer­ence 20 years ago.”

With re­gard to in­creased pres­sure on UK sci­en­tists to trans­late re­search find­ings into com­mer­cial en­ti­ties – as out­lined in the in­dus­trial strat­egy – one of Pro­fes­sor Watt’s first pri­or­i­ties will be to help fa­cil­i­tate bet­ter in­ter­ac­tion be­tween re­search and in­dus­try.

“Trans­lat­ing ba­sic sci­ence into clin­i­cal ben­e­fit...i think is re­ally im­por­tant,” she said. “The re­mit of the MRC is to spend tax­pay­ers’ money to im­prove hu­man health. You can’t do that if you don’t think about trans­la­tion.

“The rea­son I moved to Guy’s [Hospi­tal cam­pus at King’s] was that I wanted to be phys­i­cally em­bed­ded in a hospi­tal. For me per­son­ally, that has been hugely pos­i­tive. With the pres­sures on the NHS in mind, there are a lot of very able clin­i­cians who have a PHD but their time is very lim­ited – one of the things that I am very keen to do is fa­cil­i­tate those in­ter­ac­tions.”

Speak­ing at a pre-ap­point­ment hear­ing held by the House of Com­mons Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Com­mit­tee on 31 Jan­uary, Pro­fes­sor Watt said that eth­nic and gen­der di­ver­sity at the re­search body, “cer­tainly on MRC com­mit­tees”, could be im­proved. “I think that more could be done to get bet­ter eth­nic bal­ance es­pe­cially, but hav­ing recog­nised that that’s some­thing we have to work at, I’m op­ti­mistic that we could achieve it,” she said.

Asked if she felt “well re­mu­ner­ated” in the post in light of re­cent gen­der pay gap news head­lines, Pro­fes­sor Watt replied: “It’s fine.”

Pro­fes­sor Watt takes up her role as ex­ec­u­tive chair on 1 April, when UKRI is of­fi­cially launched.

Sun­shine and show­ers Fiona Watt promised that there would be no ‘ran­sack­ing of a well-struc­tured or­gan­i­sa­tion’

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