What’s coming for UK research policy?

It’s a little late in January for this type of thing, but here are some personal reflections on the coming year for UK research policy…

This year will see some decisions made about spending on research beyond the current spending review period. Current budgets run out at the end March 2015. While it looks very unlikely that a full multi-year spending review will take place before the next general election in May 2015, decisions are expected this year for the period between April 2015 and March 2016. It’s not clear on the exact timing yet, but it is possible that an announcement of Government spending in total for this period may be made in the Budget in March of this year, with decisions about the Science and Research budget, and allocations to individual Research Councils to follow. The settlement for 15/16 is important not only in itself but also because it will set the baseline on which the next full spending settlement will be based.

As well as decisions about spending, this year will also see a review of the structures through which a large proportion of that spending is delivered. A ‘triennial review‘ of the Research Councils was announced earlier this month. Part of a standard Cabinet-Office-led process that applies to all public bodies across government, the review will examine the functions carried out by the Research Councils, and whether the present structures are the most effective way to deliver those functions. While David Willetts has signalled [video, comment at 28 min] that he doesn’t see any need to make dramatic changes, the review will examine all the options.

In terms of policy debates it seems likely that there will be continued discussions about open access to the research literature, with the early part of the year being dominated by inquiries into the policy changes following the Finch Review being carried out by both the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee and the House of Commons Business Industry and Skills Committee. The wider debates about ‘open science’ also look set to continue, with discussions about open data being the next big issue after open access.

For universities, this year will see the final preparations for their submissions to the Research Excellence Framework, with the census date being on 31 October and the submissions themselves due in on 29 November. The content of these submissions will feature for the first time a section on impact. The preparation of these sections will no doubt bring continued debate on how to measure, describe and evidence the impact of research.

Finally, the early part of the year will see new people taking over the two most important positions for science and research in government. Sir Mark Walport will take over as Chief Scientific Adviser, while Sir John O’Reilly takes up the post of Director General for Knowledge and Innovation in BIS. Given everything else that is going on, they will both have full in-trays when they arrive.