16 Jan 2020

At the start of this new decade, the political, economic and cultural landscape for the UK’s science and technology research base is rapidly changing. For those engaged in research in academia and elsewhere and those businesses and VCs looking to realise commercial value from the UK’s research output, there is a raft of opportunity to be grasped as we emerge from the past three years of uncertainty and division.

In a thought-piece that sets the scene for 2020, Christine Berry explains her reasons for such optimism.

Regardless of any political perspective about our place in the global economy, I have no doubt that UK research is – and will continue to be – world class

The UK’s research sector has a proven and outstanding track-record for delivering world class research and discoveries. The creation in 2018 of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), comprising the seven former UK Research Councils plus Innovate UK and Research England, has brought together, under one umbrella, a more cohesive and integrated approach to managing the government’s £6.5bn annual investment in research across academia, research institutes, learned societies, research-based non-profits/charities, and companies undertaking research and development activities.

The government has committed to supporting the scientific research sector, recognising its important contribution not just to the UK’s economy but also its global significance.

Inevitably, there are still steps to be taken in terms of effective leadership and practical efficiencies to be achieved by the creation of UKRI. This radical move to establish a single over-arching body, which came out of the independent review undertaken by Sir Paul Nurse in 2014, seems now to be prescient. UKRI has the potential to pull together the many disparate parts of the research sector. Importantly, too, UKRI can become a powerful voice to communicate the value to society and to the economy of the full return obtained from the tax-payer investment.

Support for collaboration between academia and industry

A report produced for Research England in 2019 by Mike Rees (former deputy group CEO of Standard Chartered) proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations to help academia and industry (and investors) work better together. The Rees Report identified the key interdependencies within these relationships for the commercial exploitation of research.

The Report contains recommendations for the wider adoption of best practice to accelerate the speed with which research output is converted into successful commercial exploitation.  This includes its spin-out from academia into corporate entities and the funding these fledgling businesses can attract at different stages of their development cycle. The Report recognises the contribution that graduate start-ups make to the economy and the way in which universities and investors can support these businesses as they scale-up.  Acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with novel technologies and, potentially, new business models, the Report also notes that the existing model is not broken, so implementing change can be hard. However, the ecosystem for supporting such businesses is developing and needs to do so consistently and be fully leveraged.

We are a firm that is renowned for our work in this field, not just with the research-related end of the pipeline but particularly also for our work for spin-outs, early-stage, fast growth companies who are heavily IP-based, operating in highly-competitive, usually global markets and dependent on attracting and retaining the most talented workforce in their field.

My colleagues, Patrick Farrant, Charlie Fletcher, Chris Keen and Nicola McConville (the latter contributed to the Rees Report) are partners leading teams who work on a daily basis at the interface between academia, business and investors. Therefore we know first-hand how better to re-align these relationships for greater effectiveness and are actively participating in making this happen.

For investors and other funders, it is crucial to avoid the mistakes made elsewhere. In the US, the collapse of Theranos is a chilling example whether of gross research misconduct or outright lack of integrity which drew funders to invest some $700m in a blood-testing technology that did not work.

Over the past two years, our Zebra Project (launched at the Wellcome Trust in London in January 2018) has focused on exploring the future world of work and it is clear that the ‘soft infrastructure of business’ – purpose, culture, ethics, transparency and collaboration – is becoming a priority leadership issue for organisations and shaping the debate as to what future, sustainable, businesses will look like.

Confidence in the UK’s standards for research ethics and integrity

It is critical to all that follows that there is utmost confidence in the quality of output from the research sector. Producing work that conforms to the highest standards of academic scholarship, which are applied consistently wherever research is conducted, require a framework that promotes and oversees such conformity.

In October 2019, following consultation, Universities UK republished its Concordat to Support Research Integrity. All of the UK’s universities, together with UKRI and other relevant research entities are expected to sign up to, or otherwise endorse support for, the Concordat to ensure compliance within their organisations for the integrity and ethical compliance of the research they produce.

This week, the Wellcome Trust (one of the original signatories to the Concordat) has published its report following a survey of workplace culture in research establishments. The report highlights some tensions between the attitude of researchers who view their work as vocational and the increasing commercialisation of higher education.  The way in which research is funded and its outputs are measured are reported as posing a threat to researchers’ sense of scholarly integrity. James Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, has called for a better research culture in the workplace; “one that is creative, inclusive and honest.” Clearly the report shows there is some work to be done to fully achieve this.

For those employing researchers whether in the public, private or third sector, the revised Concordat to Support Research Integrity imposes new obligations for the way in which the research is conducted and supervised and to report on their compliance with these obligations.  These obligations reflect the outcome from the 2018 Government Science and Technology Committee paper on research integrity.  It is important to recognise that the majority of research environments are a-typical workplaces.

My colleague, James Murray, recently set out the requirements in a commentary to help employers identify what will be expected of them under the new regime. They emphasise the need for employers to deal effectively with any instances of research misconduct and lack of probity. James has also argued that it could go further to uphold the principle of academic freedom of speech. James will be speaking to that effect at the Westminster Higher Education Policy Forum in April 2020 in the context of the Research Excellence Framework in 2021.

As academia prepares for REF 2021 and the assessment of the impact of research undertaken within their institutions, other initiatives, such as the Knowledge Exchange Framework are also intended to foster confidence in standards of academic research best practice for business and investors.

All of this together demonstrates that a framework is being put in place to address ethical issues and ensure a best-in-class approach within the research sector.

Convergence of “mind, body and machine-merging technology,” artificial intelligence – ethics, integrity and the law

In a paper recently published by the Royal Society, the convergence of innovation and technology with medical research again highlighted the essential importance of research ethics and upholding the highest standards of integrity.

The speed of progress in the way technology and innovation are being applied to address medical conditions (such as those affecting mobility and aspects of dementia) open the door to solutions that would have been in the realms of science fiction even just 10 years ago.

Research collaborations in institutions across different countries and with different cultural views also raise some challenging issues for managing the ethical questions that arise.  There are often conflicting laws to be navigated to resolve disputes and balance competing interests.

Changing social attitudes as to what is acceptable in this area of technological development are likely to be a major driver in influencing how such innovation progresses. One of the key takeaways from our Zebra sessions, and highlighted in our report on findings from our first year of discussions, was that blended workforces and collective intelligence will predominate in the future and that smart AI adoption requires business leaders to combine complete clarity on what they are trying to achieve with a willingness to innovate in an agile, step-by-step way.

The most complex ethical and moral dilemmas are as likely to be worked out through the courts as by politicians.  In this respect, the regard in which the judicial system of the UK is held may well determine where such cases are decided – with implications for other jurisdictions world-wide.

Upholding the principle of academic freedom of speech

Fundamental to the above is the necessity for the research community, wherever they are employed, to work at the cutting edge and to push existing boundaries – free from concerns that individuals engaged in such work may be jeopardising their position by challenging accepted norms or engaging with controversial ideas (and not just through pseudonymous publications).

The principle of academic freedom of speech – subject to the important caveat that it must be exercised within the law – is essential to the way the research sector must be allowed to operate.  The legal requirement on universities and other institutions to take active steps to uphold it is enshrined in legislation and developed by case law, particularly of the European Court of Human Rights.  But ….

The explosive rise of social media, particularly Twitter, and the dawning age of the “coddled mind” (as described by Professor Jonathan Haidt) have exposed a lack of proper understanding of the rights and obligations associated with academic freedom of speech and an unwillingness of institutions to take principled positions to defend it. This unfortunate state of affairs has escalated in the past year, in part exacerbated by the UK’s political situation.

Regrettably, some academics have not helped themselves.  There have been instances of individuals using social and mainstream media – in a hasty desire to express an opinion – to comment on issues in such a manner that the lines have become blurred.  Although even extramural comments in their specific areas of expertise may be covered as academic expression, not every utterance from an academic is entitled to special protection. Institutions face the invidious task of upholding a powerful right, but also taking robust action when an individual goes too far and illegitimately seeks protection under the principle of academic freedom. However, it is only in striking this difficult balance that academic freedom of speech – fundamental as it is to a properly functioning democratic society – is properly protected.

One substantial challenge for the academic research community is to re-assert its commitment to academic freedom of speech in the dawn of this new decade.  The academic community must ensure that this precious right is not further eroded by the chaotic background of noise that masquerades as debate.

This also requires leadership from the universities and those who have otherwise given in to pressure; for example to ‘no platform’ speakers to whom vocal activists object, and where the obvious consequences (intended or otherwise) are to shut down important and informed discussion.

Again, my colleague James Murray has already published some thought-provoking articles on this subject.  If you have not previously seen them – they’re available here.

There are already signs that a corner is being turned. Some commentators – including some leading academics – have now recognised the danger signs and are standing their ground about their right to express views that others might find offensive. Mr Justice Knowles recently noted in the High Court in Harry Miller’s case against the College of Policing, there is no right not to be offended in English law.  It is to be hoped that universities and individuals may regain their confidence to produce work that maintains the UK’s reputation for breaking barriers.

Next steps – and joining the debate

This collection of thoughts is intended to highlight some of the broader issues that will be important to the UK’s research community, higher education providers, employers of researchers (whether in the public, private or third sector), research-based charities, funders and investors who are all critical stake-holders in the UK’s innovation economy.  We are always willing to engage in this debate and welcome your thoughts and input – either directly or via our Zebra Project.

Please do get in touch if you would like to be a part of any further discussion.

Find out more about the team: Advising the innovation economy on research ethics, integrity and commercial exploitation.

Christine Berry is a partner in Taylor Vinters’ cross-disciplinary team working with higher education, research establishments, research-based charities and business active in the research sector.  christine.berry@taylorvinters.com

James Murray is an associate in the team and he regularly writes commentaries/blogs and contributes to articles on a range of related subjects, including academic freedom of speech and research integrity.  james.murray@taylorvinters.com