Independent reviews calls for less R&D red tape

Prof Adam Tickell led the review, recommending that the government and funding agencies trial ways to standardise processes and simplify the application process

An independent review of research bureaucracy has recommended changes to the grant-awarding process, limiting the amount of paperwork until applicants are relatively likely to receive funding.

In the review, Prof Adam Tickell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, considered how funders, the government and universities can reduce the amount of bureaucracy that wastes time and resources.

Among the report’s many recommendations is a suggestion that funders pilot two-stage application processes “where the information required increases in line with the likelihood of being funded”. Tickell observes that only 21% of grant applications to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) are successful, meaning thousands of researchers spent time working on ultimately unsuccessful bids.

“While additional assurance documents… are required before funding is released, they typically play little or no role in the assessment and are often completed using boilerplate text,” the report said. “Collecting assurance information at a later point in the application/award cycle would minimise the wasted effort associated with unsuccessful bids for applicants, organisations, and funders.”

Elsewhere, the Tickell report said there was a perception from those that contributed to the review that internal university processes were the largest source of unnecessary bureaucracy. The problem is fuelled by “a culture of risk aversion”, the report says, which has “in some cases, led to unnecessary approval hierarchies which can cause major delays and operational difficulties”. The report calls for senior leaders to hand down decision-making to research managers and officers. University finance teams should offer researchers “Trusted funder” lists, allowing research managers in some instances to start hiring and purchasing necessary equipment before the official green light is received.

Unnecessary bureaucracy constrains research and runs counter to the government’s objective of making the UK a global science superpower
– Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy

The Tickell report identifies greater alignment of processes within government and between public and charitable funders as a major opportunity to eradicate duplication and simplify rules. It also proposes a “self-certification” process for research institutions “with a robust track record of assurance”.

Other recommendations include more flexibilities around no-cost extensions and start dates to grant spending periods, more responsive grant management and better communication to clearly justify why information is needed.

Universities could use standard templates for contracts and collaboration agreements to reduce the need for lawyers.

More than 160 organisations contributed to the report, including dozens of universities, charities and mission groups.

Wrote Tickell: “The review recommendations demonstrate that the potential for change is considerable. The research system is complex and multi-faceted – the range of disciplines, types of research and funding approaches are a key feature and strength of the UK system. However, this complexity means that there is often no single ‘solution’ that can be applied everywhere.”

Tickell said the report had “unearthed excessive bureaucracy across the system”, adding it would “take a collective effort” to “realise the potential benefits of change”.

Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, thanked Prof Tickell for the report. “The government is committed to addressing the issues set out in your report,” he said in a letter to the Birmingham vice-chancellor. “Unnecessary bureaucracy constrains research and runs counter to the government’s objective of making the UK a global science superpower.

“I welcome the findings in the report and note the work already underway in a number of organisations to simplify and streamline their processes. I recognise that there is much for government departments to consider, particularly the need for greater collaboration and harmonisation of approach.”

A detailed government response to the report’s findings is expected later this year.

The government has already published a review of UKRI, led by Prof Sir David Grant. There is a forthcoming review of the research, development and innovation organisational landscape, led by Prof Sir Paul Nurse.

Read more: Review of UKRI highlights inefficiencies

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