The UK government has announced a raft of measures to boost science in the country as it gets ready to leave the European Union on 31 January. They include investing £300m over five years to fund mathematical sciences, the lifting of visa restrictions on scientists coming to the UK, as well as removing the need for researchers to make “impact” statements when submitting grant applications to UK funding councils.
The boost for mathematics comes via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which will invest £60m per year in the field – double what it currently spends. EPSRC says it will provide £19m towards funding PhD students for four years “as standard” and offer five-year funding for research associates to “compete with the US and Europe”.
The cash will also include £34m per year for research, which will come with “more flexibility on the number and length of fellowships and will not be ring-fenced between sub-disciplines”. Finally, £7m each year will go towards PhDs and research fellows at the Heilbronn Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Bristol as well as funding to increase participants and workshops at both the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge and the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences in Edinburgh.
The new funding was announced at the same time as a new fast-track visa scheme to attract scientists, researchers and mathematicians to the UK. It is expected to replace the current “Exceptional Talent: Tier 1” visa, which has a current cap of 2000 visas per year. The new visa scheme, which comes into force on 20 February, will not feature such a cap.
There remains a real need to continue to enable and support people with the right skills and experience to live and work in the UK.
Patrick Cusworth, Institute of Physics
“At present, 44% of science, engineering and technology firms report difficulties in finding recruits with the right skills,” says Patrick Cusworth, head of policy at the Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World. “There remains a real need to continue to enable and support people with the right skills and experience to live and work in the UK. Developing a pragmatic means of doing so is therefore a big step in the right direction.”
It is still not clear, however, if the UK will remain part of the EU’s Horizon research programme, the latest of which ends this year. Members of the programme have to accept freedom of movement of scientists between EU member states, but this is likely to be terminated once the UK’s transition period finishes at the end of 2020.
The impact agenda
UK researchers will, however, benefit from no longer having to submit a “Pathways to Impact” plan or complete an “Impact Summary” when applying for cash from UKRI – the umbrella organization for the UK’s seven research councils. The so-“Pathways for Impact” requirement, which had been in place for around a decade, was controversial. But for grant applications made from 1 March 2020, researchers will not have to submit. The UKRI currently invest a total of £7bn into British science each year
The removal of “Pathways to Impact” will be broadly welcomed by the many grant-writing physicists whose heart sank at the thought of churning out two pages of boilerplate on the ill-defined socioeconomic impact of their proposed research
“The removal of ‘Pathways to Impact’ will be broadly welcomed by the many grant-writing physicists whose heart sank at the thought of churning out two pages of boilerplate on the ill-defined socioeconomic impact of their proposed research,” says Physicist Philip Moriarty from the University of Nottingham. “Yet despite being a vocal opponent of it for many years, I feel it’s important to recognise that it played a role in shifting attitudes regarding the broader implications of academic research. For one thing, the ‘impact agenda’ led to a greater – albeit, often rather opportunistic – interaction between science and the arts and humanities. Hopefully this interdisciplinary activity will continue in its absence”.
Writing on the Wonkhe blog, James Wilsdon from the University of Sheffield, who is director of the Research on Research Institute, says he feels it is “premature” to see this move as the end of the impact agenda. “Rather this is a reflection of impact’s maturity and the extent to which is has now been mainstreamed within research culture and practice,” he adds.