James Wilsdon Grand Challenges lecture...

Professor Wilsdon’s talk After Brexit, UKRI if you want to: a field guide to the new research landscape considered the opportunities and the challenges presented by the changing research system, the biggest shake-up in the organisation of UK research for a generation. At the outset he emphasised the important connection between this topic and the grand challenges theme, reminding us that if ‘we get this stuff wrong it impedes our ability as researchers and universities to tackle those big questions and if we get it right, our ability to contribute is hugely enhanced‘.

UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) brings the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK and the research arm of HEFCE into this new mega-funder under Sir Mark Walport. The Research Excellence Framework has been revamped and all of these reforms are taking place against the backdrop of the compound uncertainties of Brexit.

There are few people better positioned to provide such a comprehensive and insightful field guide to this changing landscape.; James has a long and established history of working at the heart of UK research policy and his research interests include the role of evidence and expertise in policymaking; the politics and practice of scientific advice; interdisciplinarity, particularly between natural and social sciences; science and innovation policy in the UK, EU and China; and public engagement in research.

Make time for Professor Wilsdon’s full lecture (which you can view again here), meanwhile in brief, here are his five key priorities for UKRI and five opportunities for researchers.

James and audience

UKRI needs to

  • Demonstrate to the research community how t will undertake smart open prioritisation. The grand challenges are about priorities and the promise is that UKRI will look at balance and prioritisation across the system
  • Show that it has a serious commitment to place UKRI is the funder for all 4 nations and all regions of the UK and we need to see that UKRI has a serious commitment to place. It how place gets appropriate emphasis in the funding system –
  • Invest in the next generation of research leaders among ECRs and in the UKRI itself (rotator model)
  • Build the next generation research information infrastructure and support more investment in this area. We need more research on research so that we can evidence how well the money is being spent and what works better or worse in research
  • Renew its commitment to public engagement and responsible innovation. Some of the learning from the experience of communicating topics such as GM crops has been lost and we are beginning to have the same debates about AI, machine learning and digital technologies.

Researchers need to

  • Become fluent in the Sustainable Development Goals – these are the Lingua Franca of interdisciplinary global research
  • Get serious about ‘team science’ and ‘team social science’
  • Invest in new capacity and structures for collaboration and knowledge exchange
  • Think about research careers. Expand our notions of research leadership and criteria for hiring promotion and assessment
  • Get involved in UKRI and contribute to its collective intelligence and influence debates and rebalance the 2.4 % of GDP

Audience Clapping


James Wilsdon is Professor of Research Policy and Director of Impact and Engagement in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. From 2013-2017, he was Chair of the UK's Campaign for Social Science. He also chaired the independent review of the role of metrics in the management of the UK’s research system, which published its final report 'The Metric Tide' in 2015. Previously, James worked as Professor of Science and Democracy at University of Sussex and Director of Science Policy at the Royal Society. He is an editor of the Guardian's 'Political Science' blog on science and research policy. In 2015, he was elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.