Contemplating the UK Government’s Review of Research Bureaucracy

Sophie Lowry, Strategic Research Executive, highlights key messages from a talk she gave recently at a Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference “Next steps for reducing bureaucratic burden in Higher Education and research – options, scope, and potential impact”.

In March 2021, the UK Government launched its independent review into UK research bureaucracy. This was an anticipated move, given plans for this were mentioned in the government’s R&D Roadmap, published in July 2020.  In September 2020, BEIS also published a policy paper announcing particular actions which UKRI, the NIHR and the Office of Students would take to reduce bureaucracy within their operations. The Review is being led by Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, and promises to be a system-wide review which will be completed in early 2022.

It would probably be quite difficult to find anyone working in the research community who wouldn’t generally be supportive of the overall idea of reducing administrative burdens in research and innovation processes.  However, in any change programme, it’s important to consider all angles.

I focused my talk on a few areas which I felt were particularly important to remember whilst the review is ongoing:

  • The potential for unintended consequences in such a diverse research landscape. Usually when policy processes and procedures are changed, it results in driving a change in behaviours. It is, therefore, necessary to understand what that change might mean across the whole of this complex system. This complexity is particularly important to remember given the diversity of the higher education sector across the four nations of the UK and the fact that these changes are likely to have differential impacts, depending, for example, on the type or size of a university.
  • The importance of a whole-system approach to change. There seems to be a genuine emphasis on the necessity of a holistic approach to reducing red tape within the system in many of the recently published documents about the review. Within the Review’s Terms and Conditions, it explicitly mentions that any suggested changes cannot simply shift burdens from one part of the system to the other. So ‘freeing up researchers to pursue world-class research’ cannot mean that this burden lands elsewhere in the system, say within local or central research offices, which many would argue are already at capacity within a chronically underfunded research infrastructure.
  • The need for inclusivity and authenticity in the stakeholder engagement and consultation processes. The above point demonstrates how significant including and engaging with all parts of this complex system is in conducting the review. It’s great to see that a number of roundtables will be held as part of the consultation process and these must be representative of all groups within the research eco-system. This means engaging with all different levels of staff involved in making this system work, from an array of professional services to Vice Principals of Research to early career researchers from all different kinds of universities and from all nations of the UK being involved, particularly in light of the UK Government’s levelling up agenda. This inclusivity is particularly important if we are also being mindful of the recent drive to improve research culture.

Another point that is worth raising is that the less bureaucracy there tends to be throughout the system, generally the less information that is collected. This isn’t an issue as such but universities shouldn’t then be asked for similar information, at some point later on or through a different process. As an example, it could be argued that this is what recently happened with some parts of the impact agenda – UKRI removed the Pathways to Impact section of the grant application in order to reduce the amount of information required in this particular bit of the system. However, universities are still expected to demonstrate and evidence the impact of their research in a number of other ways, like the REF, so institutionally are still required to collect the relevant impact information, thus the administrative burden hasn’t really been lessened.

Having mentioned all this, I closed my talk encouraging colleagues across the system to engage with this significant review to help shape a modern research system for the UK that is truly fit for purpose and world-class.

Other posts on this topic

For more information on the BEIS policy paper mentioned this this post, see the previous ERO blog post, Taking Down the Red Tape: Changes to Reduce Bureaucracy in Research, Innovation & Higher Education

For more information on the roadmap, see the previous blog post, Thoughts on the UK Research and Development Roadmap.

If you would like to contribute your view, the review team welcomes views on where there is unnecessary bureaucracy in the research system, examples of best practice and the best ways to engage across the research community. The team can be contacted at bureaucracyreview@beis.gov.uk.

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