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Letter to the UK RDI Landscape Review

The following is a letter I wrote to the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy on Feb 18, 2022, with recommendations for how the UK should adjust its R&D strategy. It was written for review of the UK R&D Landscape being written by Paul Nurse.

One thing I have noticed about the UK is that UK institutions tend to be very inward-looking. They tend to compare themselves only to other UK institutions, rather than to international institutions, and they tend to come up with reasons why it is not fair to compare them directly to their international competitors. If UK R&D is to compete internationally, the UK needs to benchmark itself against its international competition.


Build a globally competitive national lab network to attract the world’s top talent

Dear Sir Paul,

I will focus on how the UK can become globally competitive in creating and commercializing new science and technology fields likely to spawn major transformations in our prosperity and our understanding of the world. Currently it is failing to do so.

The UK needs to focus on: (1) competing for the very best international research talent, (2) creating new mechanisms for teams of researchers to collaborate to create these new fields, and (3) allowing a range of programmers, engineers, technicians, and other skills to work with these world class lead researchers. This involves investing in new institutions for science that reflect how science has changed in recent decades.

As you know, I am an early-mid career researcher who trained at one of the top synthetic biology laboratories in the United States, and recently moved to the United Kingdom. Synthetic biology is an example of a field of science that the UK has committed to lead in, but is falling behind in. I would estimate that the UK lags roughly 5 to 10 years behind the US in the synthetic biology field. I was specifically attracted to the environment at the Crick Institute, but there are few if any environments in the UK other than the Crick which could compete with those available to me in the United States. Outside of the Crick, DeepMind, and to some extent the LMB, the UK lacks the kinds of environments that can consistently attract the very best talent at all career stages, especially for early/mid career.

My primary comment is therefore that institutions in the UK currently benchmark themselves primarily against each other, whereas if they want to achieve world-leading performance, they need to benchmark themselves against the top institutions worldwide.

The UK universities may argue that they place well in world rankings, but these comparisons are complacent and self-serving. The number of papers published in Nature, Science, and Cell from institutions in the Boston, MA area easily dwarfs the number of papers published in those journals from the entire UK. The amount of venture funding available for biotech in Boston, MA also exceeds that of the entire UK[1]. Existing UK institutions may also argue that the UK performs well on average[2], but scientific and technological advances are driven by outliers[3]. When it comes to attracting top research talent, therefore, these metrics are a primary concern. The UK must be capable of recruiting the outliers, and it can only do this by providing internationally competitive opportunities.

Salaries: The salary for a lecturer in the UK on the HE Single Pay Spine ranges from £40k to £60k/yr. By contrast, the salary for an entry-level assistant professor at MIT is $125k, and at Stanford it is $135k, excluding fringe benefits. The UK’s top institutions must be prepared to pay salaries that are competitive with top US institutions if they want to recruit top talent. The same can be said of postdoc salaries and PhD student salaries, which are higher in the US than the UK, and this can be an issue for recruiting students or postdocs who are deciding between positions in the US and the UK.

Start-up funding: Although I have not been able to find any data to this effect, it is my understanding that UK universities do not ordinarily provide startup packages to help researchers establish their labs, and that researchers are instead expected to obtain startup funding from grants. By contrast, most US universities provide startup packages to new researchers in the form of direct funding that ranges from $500k to low millions[4]. The lack of direct startup funding at UK universities provides a major barrier to entry for foreign researchers, who may not be familiar with the UK grant system, and who would likely be unwilling to accept an academic position with no startup funding. In order to recruit high caliber international talent, top UK universities must collaborate with funders to provide startup grants that are competitive with US institutions. Similarly, the titles used in the UK (“lecturer,” “reader”) are opaque. The UK should standardize its title system and its tenure process to make it more understandable for foreign applicants.

Technology transfer: Technology commercialization provides a way for academics to leverage more capital and increase the impact of their research, and also provides academics with increased earning potential, which can make up for the otherwise low salaries available in academia relative to industry positions. However, it is well-established that universities in the United Kingdom demand much more equity and many more privileges than their American counterparts in exchange for technology licenses[5]. Whereas top American universities, such as MIT or Stanford, typically demand ~5% equity[6], many top UK universities demand 20% to 50%. These terms can have a significant negative impact on the ability of academics to commercialize their research, and are a major reason why more translationally-minded academics may choose to take positions at American institutions rather than UK institutions. Top UK institutions must modernize their technology transfer provisions to bring them in line with those at top US institutions.

Performance reviews: I have heard conflicting things about how tenure works in lecturer positions in the UK. In some cases, it is my understanding that lecturers are tenured when they are hired, whereas in other cases they are tenured after a short period (3-4 years). The tenure review process in the US provides a mechanism for controlling the quality of academic labs, to ensure that only the best labs take up valuable space and financial resources. The UK must ensure that it has a robust performance-based review process for its university-based academic labs, to ensure that poorly performing labs do not consume valuable space, financial resources, and waste time by swamping the grant system.

Advertising: Finally, many researchers internationally, and especially in the United States, are not aware of changes that the UK has made that would make it a more attractive location to start a scientific career. For example, researchers in the US may not be aware of the direct support available at the Crick Institute, which is highly competitive with top institutions in the US; and they may not be aware of how easy it is for top-performing researchers to obtain attractive visas. Thus, the UK must formulate a strategy for advertising the advantages of UK research institutions to postdocs and early-career researchers internationally, including in the United States.

It will be difficult for the government to fully produce the kind of coordinated, sweeping changes required above in HEIs, especially as many of these challenges are entrenched in the University model.

To address these problems, the UK should create a network of institutes with the goal of attracting elite researchers from around the world. These institutes should share 10 common cultural principles below, but could be organized around specific subjects, similar to the Max Planck Institutes. This network should subsume several existing institutes, and could initially consume a relatively modest fraction of the UK public R&D budget, growing over time. (E.g., a budget of £1.5B/yr would be enough to fund 5 to 10 Crick Institutes, though a diverse portfolio of sizes could be pursued).

1) Generous core institute funding and shared resources: Institutes should be supported by generous core funding, giving leadership significant discretionary ability to spot and scale local opportunities. This core funding should also allow strong shared equipment and facility resources, but these shared facilities must be incentivized by performance to ensure high standards.

2) Invest in people: Similar to the Crick Institute, the new institutes should use core funding to support researchers in doing high risk research. Researchers should have the opportunity, but not necessity, to expand their labs by obtaining external funding. This core funding should be benchmarked to the top international competitors, such as the HHMI Investigators program in the US. Top researchers must be supported in doing high-risk science by minimizing the amount of time they spend obtaining funding.

3) Relatively flat hierarchy: The institutes must minimize bureaucracy by remaining small, retaining a flat hierarchy, and ensuring that the executives are properly empowered to make decisions, while avoiding ossification by constantly empowering new talent.

4) Separation of teaching and research responsibilities: Some academics excel at research, others excel at teaching. Researchers who excel at teaching should be able to teach at HEIs, while those who excel at research should focus primarily on research.

5) Prioritize quality over value for money: The new institutes should be founded with a culture that celebrates high performance science, even when it has a high-budget. There is a pervasive culture in the UK of “value for money,” i.e., accepting lower quality results if they cost less money, which decreases the speed and quality of UK research. Progress in science is driven by outliers, and research projects that are outliers in ambition, scale, and budget should be encouraged. To support high-budget research, the new institutes should also be eligible for responsive-mode project grants that are competitive in size and scope with NIH R01s.

6) Emphasis on methods development in emerging fields: The UK is currently weak in technology and methods development, even at top institutions such as the Crick and the LMB. However, several of the UK’s major life science successes, such as Oxford Nanopore, Refeyn Ltd, and Bicycle Therapeutics, have resulted from methods development. The UK should invest heavily in future methods development.

7) Competitive salaries and performance-related pay: The institutes should pay internationally competitive salaries for faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Staff scientists and administrators who are not motivated by publications should receive performance-related bonuses to ensure they are properly incentivized.

8) Support for staff scientist roles: Cutting edge projects today require specialized skills and integrate AI, wetlab work, and engineering. However, salary limitations prevent academic labs from competing with industry positions for top engineers or programmers. The new institutes should allow academics to pay industry-competitive rates for some top staff scientists, for example through specialized grants.

9) Project teams: Capacity of local scaling of ideas requiring bigger efforts independent of central bureaucracy, like with DeepMind’s AlphaFold, Janelia’s optical and silicon sensor project teams, and the Focused Research Organizations I have recently proposed[7].

10) Ambitious technology transfer provisions: The institutes should not attempt to use technology transfer as a revenue-generating mechanism. They should partner with investors and should actively encourage entrepreneurship among students, faculty, and staff, as a way to build a local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

These institutes should also permit a range of group sizes and tenure options. In general, I believe that smaller lab sizes and a lack of tenure leads to better science overall[8], but attracting international talent will require institutes to permit larger lab sizes and to grant tenure in some cases. A key benefit of an institute with a restricted focus is that it can allow the creation of ‘Multi-PI’ labs, with larger groups forming via assembly of smaller ones. Ideally, a network of specialized but closely integrated institutes can facilitate unidisciplinary collaborations within an institute, and interdisciplinary collaborations between institutes.

Such institutes will inevitably compete with universities for research funding, and this may generate pushback from the universities in the short term. In the long run, however, if research institutes do a better job than universities of attracting top talent and producing world-class research, they should be allowed to do so, and this would be a very positive development for the UK research organization as a whole. The essential role of universities as centers for higher education and teaching is not in doubt.

Samuel Gordon Rodriques

Early Career Group Leader, Francis Crick Institute

[1], [2] (For example, the UK places third in the ranking of total numbers of papers published.) [3] [4] [5] Wong, Sybil CK, et al. "Keys to the kingdom." Nature Biotechnology 33.3 (2015): 232-236. [6] [7] Marblestone, Adam, et al. "Unblock research bottlenecks with non-profit start-ups." (2022): 188-190. [8] Wu, Wang and Evans 2019, Nature, ‘Large teams develop and small teams disrupt science and technology’

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