The Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation is good news for Northern England, but reform of research funding is needed to create a sustainable scientific ‘powerhouse’ in the North, argues Dr Kieron Flanagan.
Chancellor George Osborne has made much in recent months of his ambition to help the cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield become a Northern Powerhouse through investment in transport infrastructure and science. Osborne’s recent challenge to Northern science leaders was to identify what the ‘Crick of the North’ should be – a reference to the enormous £600m National Institute for Biomedical Research currently under construction in London. This challenge ultimately led to the recent announcement of £250m of capital spending to create the Sir Henry Royce Institute for Materials Research and Innovation.
This is very welcome news for Manchester and the North. By my reckoning this has to be the largest single investment in science in the North of England since the construction of the Synchrotron Radiation Source at the Daresbury Laboratory in the 1970s. The Government’s capital commitment is similar to that for the Crick (though the total Crick capital budget is almost three times’ larger). This is a step change from the kind of new investment we previously used to get excited about.
But questions remain about how this compares to the investment that goes into the ‘Golden Triangle’ bounded by Oxford, Cambridge and London. According to the initial statements, the Sir Henry Royce Institute will not only have its main £235m ‘hub’ in Manchester and ‘spokes’ at the universities of Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool, but also additional spokes at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London. The latter detail doesn’t fit so well with the Northern Powerhouse rhetoric around Royce – and it is interesting that Osborne didn’t mention the Golden Triangle spokes, only the Northern ones, in his announcement to the House of Commons during the Autumn Statement.
More importantly, the Crick Institute in London does not have spokes, never mind spokes in the North. Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, told the Financial Times it could only play a truly national role because it was based in London. And the Crick will have ongoing funding from government through the Medical Research Council – which is merging its existing London-based National Institute for Medical Research into the new enterprise. So far we have heard nothing about how the Royce Institute will be funded after construction. If it is truly a ‘national’ institute, despite its location, one would expect an ongoing funding commitment.
And the broader picture for science in Manchester and the wider North may not be so rosy. With both major parties warning that public spending cuts will need to continue well into the next Parliament, and with large budgets such as health and education likely to remain protected, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – within which the UK Science Budget sits – will be one of the departments under most pressure to make cuts.
So far the science budget – which mostly funds basic research and advanced training through the UK Research Councils and other streams – has been protected (enforced ‘efficiency savings’ aside). If budgets are tight, the reaction of the system – from ministers to officials – will be to increase the concentration of funding in the top-ranked institutions.
The normal operation of the funding system, though ‘geography blind’, already concentrates most resources in the Golden Triangle institutions. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) scores suggest that concentration is likely to intensify. Northern universities like Manchester are already having to run harder and harder simply to stay still as the Golden Triangle institutions pull away from the pack, and the environment will get ever more challenging.
So it is welcome that ministers want to boost science in the North. But the Chancellor’s largesse creates the opposite risk: that ‘mini-me’ versions of the Crick are created that struggle to win sustainable funding under the normal operation of the research funding system. If ministers really wish to address regional disparities in terms of science activity, the only effective way to do this is to reform the funding processes that have driven, and which continue to drive, these disparities. This would mean reversing the explicit push towards greater concentration of research funding that has characterised research policy in England for decades. But it would also be necessary to deal with some of the structural challenges faced by the great Northern research universities.
In particular, the Golden Triangle institutions benefit not just from reputational and funding advantages, but also from the fact that agglomeration of activity means that scientific labour markets in the Golden Triangle are magnets for the best and brightest from all over the world. For a potentially mobile future star scientist, it is a smaller personal and professional risk to uproot your career and family to move to one of the best known and most productive clusters of scientific and technological activity anywhere in the world than it is to move to a geographically marginalised Northern city with a single research-intensive university. This is true even if the quality of your colleagues and facilities will be much the same and the cost of living and quality of life may be better in the North.
Promised improvements in transport infrastructure – if they materialise – could help to integrate fragmented Northern scientific labour markets. And the great Northern research universities now see each other less as competitors and are taking tentative steps towards closer and deeper collaboration in research. It is clearly to their mutual benefit to renew that determination to work together to improve the attractiveness of the North’s emerging scientific labour market.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Guardian ‘Political Science’ blog.