Ongoing UK Research Problems (4) – Royal Charter No More?

(June 29th, 2017) Independent of Brexit uncertainties, Jeremy Garwood reports on a number of other UK government policy changes and plans that are already changing the UK research labscape.

Critics of the UK’s new Higher Education and Research Bill were alarmed to discover that the huge new research institution, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), would not be given a Royal Charter status. A Royal Charter is a centuries-old British legal instrument issued by the monarch. The oldest dates from 1066, and around 1,000 have been issued since then. In the UK, Royal Charters serve to protect public bodies (including the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC) from direct political interference by government ministers.

The absence of a Royal Charter status for UKRI could result in “a significant weakening” of the current protections this status has conferred upon each of the research councils. In effect, the seven research councils would now be downgraded to “research committees” within UKRI. Without a Royal Charter, James Wilsdon said, this would mean that “any changes in the naming or remit of the research committees would no longer require parliamentary debate, but could be made through ‘a statutory instrument … laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’ Given the frequency with which such statutory instruments are used, this means that changes could be rubber stamped in an undebated vote.”

Wilsdon, professor of research policy at Sheffield University, quoted a senior figure in the research councils who lamented that: “There’s been an unhelpful emphasis from Nurse onwards that no-one in the research community should panic, that this isn’t a merger, and the reforms won’t substantively change anything. But now it’s clear that this is, in any meaningful sense, a merger. And that it gives ministers permission to further merge, rearrange or abolish the research committees at a later stage”.

Less high profile than the drama of the Brexit Referendum last year and the ensuing summer plots and treachery that saw David Cameron replaced by Theresa May as the UK’s Prime Minister, the Higher Education and Research Bill began to make its way through the House of Commons. However, the parliamentary debate by MPs soon began to reinforce worries for the future of British science. In October, an editorial in Nature urged scientists to “Stand up for UK research freedom!”. Noting that the bill amounted to the biggest shake-up in UK research and higher education for more than a generation, Nature warned that “the bill rips up an 800-year-old settlement between the nation’s scholars and the state. It opens the door to unacceptable political interference. It must be resisted.”

At the moment, scientists have a right in law “to choose what to work on without unwarranted steering or instruction from government”. But without the protection of Royal Charter status, government could dictate research priorities. “Many scientists may not know it, but the Royal Charters of their universities help public funds for research and teaching to come with few strings attached. The University of Cambridge received its Royal Charter in 1231, and dozens of other universities have been granted them since. Royal Charters also govern each of the seven discipline-based research councils,” Nature wrote. However, all this would change when the bill dissolved the seven individual councils, and replaced them with UKRI, a body without a Royal Charter. “The UK government would give itself the direct right to create and dissolve whole areas of research funding. At present, the risk to the autonomy of science and research is theoretical, but the implications for academic freedom are troubling.”

Furthermore, Nature noted that the bill also proposes to “override the Royal Charters of universities.” This would happen with the establishment of another governmental body, the Office for Students. In addition to changes in research, the Bill aims to make it easier for private companies to set up new, for-profit universities (currently, all but one of the UK universities is public). The Office for Students would regulate the expected flood of new private universities, as well as existing publicly funded ones. “So even for those universities that have a Royal Charter, the creation of the Office for Students would effectively make that document worthless. Why does this matter? As the draft legislation makes clear, ministers would then be able to suggest courses for universities to teach.”

The Nature editorial finished with a clear warning of what was happening: “Make no mistake. Britain’s first all-Conservative government in 20 years sees science and higher education as vestiges of the Big State. If its proposals become law, the government will upend globally accepted norms that protect independence and self-determination in science and higher education. If scientists and their representative organisations don’t want that to happen, they need to speak up — and do it now!”

In the House of Lords, growing parliamentary resistance to the Higher Education and Research Bill could force some changes before it became law but, as discussed in the next part, the government now used promises of lots more money to disarm the opposition.

Jeremy Garwood

Photo: Pixabay/Capri23auto

Last Changes: 08.03.2017