By Cat Ball, Policy Manager, AMRC

Published: 11 May 2017

For the past year, talk of HERB has been aplenty in the AMRC office. No, we haven’t suddenly gained a burning interest in gardening or cookery; we’ve been working on the development of the Higher Education and Research Bill, now Act.

The Act – a new research landscape

Legislation that has impact on the UK’s research landscape comes around infrequently. Medical research charities are a vital part of this landscape - AMRC’s members collectively funded over £1.4 billion of research in 2015; more than any other public funder of research including the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institutes of Health Research (NIHR). Therefore the announcement of a new Bill back in May 2016 was significant.

The Act is broad in scope also paving the way for changes to the higher education environment. AMRC’s focus was on the research parts; these detailed proposals to create a new overarching body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This body will include the 7 existing Research Councils and Innovate UK, the UK’s business-facing innovation agency, as well as the research and knowledge exchange functions of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as a new body, Research England.

We will keep members informed of UKRI as it develops. Though the organisation has existed for some time in ‘shadow form’, it will be formally established in April 2018. Key appointments have begun to be made; it was announced back in February that Professor Sir Mark Walport will be UKRI’s first Chief Executive. AMRC have had early engagement with UKRI and recently met with Sir Mark.

Let’s rewind; here at AMRC we had two key goals with regards to the Bill: that the charity sector would be represented within UKRI; and that clarity should be gained on future charity-Research Council partnerships.

Charity sector experience in UKRI

UKRI is to be a powerful body with oversight across the breadth of UK science and research. It will therefore be making decisions that could significantly impact our sector. We were concerned about these decisions being made by a Board with no experience of the charity sector. Particularly as the Bill explicitly stated that experience of industrial, commercial and financial matters would be required.

We worked with our Chair Lord Sharkey to put forward a proposal to include experience of the charity sector within the desiderata of UKRI board members. Government subsequently included this in their Lords amendments. This means that charitable experience is now on the same footing as that from business within UKRI’s Board.

Research Council partnerships with charities

Strategic partnerships between Research Councils, particularly the Medical Research Council, and charities are an important way by which our members seek to increase the impact of the research they fund. The introduction of an over-arching umbrella body across all the Councils meant that the future operation of partnerships with individual Councils was unclear. While the Government reassured from the outset that they recognised the importance of such partnerships, our concerns regarding partnership mechanics and potential delays as a result of increased bureaucracy went unanswered.

Again our Chair tabled an amendment – this time aimed at probing the situation further. Lord Prior, Government lead on the research aspects of the Bill in the Lords, subsequently issued a letter that provided the sector with reassurance that partnerships would not be adversely affected.  

Next steps

Now, as the process begins to formally set-up UKRI, AMRC will be working to monitor progress and ensure that the voice of the charity sector is heard.

So, while the office chat about HERB may be finished, our work on the new research landscape is far from done.