UK Research Councils

UK Research Councils

The UK Research Councils, of which there are currently seven, are publicly-funded agencies responsible for co-ordinating and funding particular areas of research, including the arts, humanities, all areas of science and engineering. They have five main functions, which are to:

  • Fund basic, strategic and applied research.
  • Support postgraduate training (PhDs and masters students and fellows).
  • Advance knowledge and technology and provide services and trained scientists and engineers to contribute to the economic competitiveness, the effectiveness of public services and policy, and quality of life.
  • Support science in society activities.
  • Provide access for UK researchers to large research facilities, which it achieves either by owning them and operating them or through international subscriptions to major facilities such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

The funding of the UK's overall academic research via seven autonomous bodies has led to some problems of coordination. The UK government has addressed this since the late 1990s through funding incentives which require cross-Council collaboration on major new research programmes, and through encouragement to set up a formal (but non-statutory) cross-Council secretariat, known as Research Councils UK (RCUK) to undertake activities that cross the remits of all the Councils, such as creation of a joint electronic grant application process, development of improved impact assessment procedures, and a common international strategy. For the precise distinction, see the official RCUK website [1] .



Research councils are non-departmental government bodies incorporated by Royal Charter. Each is governed by its own governing council comprising a mix of academic and non-academic members, appointed by the Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills following a public nomination process. The councils receive public funds from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and each reports annually to the British Parliament. In 2008 the combined annual budget was around £3.5 billion. Of this over £1 billion is spent on research grants and training in UK higher education institutions, forming one element of the UK's dual support system of research funding. (The other element is provided through block grants provided by the UK Funding Councils for higher education.)

Research Council grants support around 50,000 researchers through 18,000 grants at any one time. About 8000 PhDs are awarded annually as a result of their funding. The Councils fund only a small proportion of doctoral training places, but their quality assurance processes ensure that all departments eligible to host a Council-funded student provide an excellent training for all doctoral students.

The Councils employ around 13,000 staff directly, of whom 9,000 are researchers and technicians working in institutes and facilities such as the British Antarctic Survey, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Roslin Institute and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. However, in the UK funding system only a few permanent institutes are directly controlled or core-funded by the Councils. These are all in areas where a permanent infrastructure of some kind is required. Most Council funding is allocated on a competitive basis, with few awards lasting more than 10 years. In this way the Councils are able to shape the UK's capacity to meet changing research challenges.

Research council funding decisions are guided by the Haldane Principle, the idea that decisions are best made by researchers, independently from Government. Research council funding competitions use open peer review.


There are seven Research Councils:

The MRC has its head office in central London and the other six research councils and RCUK operate from a single complex in Swindon. The Research Councils have run a joint Office in Brussels since 1984 - the United Kingdom Research Office (UKRO) and in 2007 - 2008 set up three further offices: in Beijing, China ([2]), Washington DC, ([3]) and New Delhi, India ([4]).

In 2007 the Government raised the status of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) to become, in effect, a research council for industry. This was motivated by a concern that the seven research councils, with their emphasis on academic excellence, were giving insufficient attention to innovation through the application of research findings. The TSB has set up its headquarters next door to the Swindon offices of the research councils.


The history of government funding of science in the UK starts with the establishment of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in 1675 and continues with increased expenditure through the nineteenth century, including the creation of the British Geological Survey in 1832, and the allocation of funds in 1850 to the Royal Society to award grants to individuals.

By the First World War in 1915 claims made about the poor state of British manufacturing industry compared to Germany led to the creation of a unified structure to support both science and innovation in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research(DSIR). It was a part of government, staffed by civil servants who distributed grants to individuals and operated laboratories as well as establishing policy - for example the Radio Research Station created at Ditton Park in 1924 and later to become the Appleton Laboratory.

In 1918 Richard Haldane produced a wide ranging report on the machinery of government which included recommendations that government departments undertake more research before making policy and that departments should oversee that specific research while more general industrial and scientific research should be under the control of autonomous Research Councils, which would be free from political and administrative pressures. Lord Hailsham labelled this separation of duties as the Haldane principle when he was Minister of Science in 1964 and it has since been a guiding principle for the Research Councils.[1]

Following the recommendations of the Haldane Report, in 1920 the Medical Research Council (MRC) was created from the Medical Research Committee which had been established in 1913 to distribute funds collected under the National Insurance Act of 1911. In contrast with DSIR, the MRC was not a government department, its staff were not civil servants, and it concentrated its resources into a small number of central laboratories and a large number of research units associated with universities and hospitals.[2]

In 1931 the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) was established, incorporating 12 major agricultural research institutes that had been created in England and Wales in 1914.

In 1949 Nature Conservancy was established as a Research Council in all but name. The National Research Development Corporation (NRDC) was also created to provide financial assistance for the development of inventions.

In 1957 the National Institute for Research in Nuclear Science (NIRNS) was formed to operate the Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, and in 1962 the Daresbury Laboratory.

By 1964 there were 14,150 science and engineering graduates in the UK (up from 7,688 in 1955) while annual civil and military research expenditure had risen from £0.6 million in 1913, through £10 million in 1939, to about £76 million.[3] To respond to this growth, in 1963 Sir Burke Trend chaired a committee to enquire into the organisation of civil science.[4] One major recommendation of the report was that the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research(DSIR) was unwieldy and should be divided into a Science Research Council, a Natural Resources Research Council and an Industrial Research and Development Authority (IRDA) to address scientific research and industrial innovation respectively - with the NRDC being transferred under the Minister of Science to ensure that the transition through the linear model of innovation was smooth.

After the national election, the government chose to align scientific research with education in an Department of Education and Science, while the industrial innovation activities were assigned to a Ministry of Technology thereby building a barrier to the smooth transition of research to innovation. Stepping down as science Minister, Lord Hailsham argued that "Ever since 1915 it has been considered axiomatic that responsibility for industrial research and development is better exercised in conjunction with research in the medical, agricultural and other fields".[5] This conflict between aligning science with academic or industrial policy was to remain a regular tension for the research councils. After 1967 it was relaxed by Solly Zuckerman who chaired a Cabinet level committee - the Central Advisory Council for Science and Technology - bringing together the interests of the Department of Education and Science with those of the Ministry of Technology.

Under the control of the Department of Education and Science, the Science & Technology Act of 1965 created both the Science Research Council (SRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The SRC incorporated most of the science part of DSIR including the Appleton Laboratory, and both the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Royal Observatory Edinburgh, and took control of Rutherford High Energy Laboratory, and the Daresbury Laboratory from NIRNS. NERC incoporporated the Nature Conservancy and British Geological Survey.

Also founded in 1965 was the Social Sciences Research Council (later the ESRC) bringing the number of Research Councils to five, divided by disciplines which were not expected to collaborate - Medicine, Agriculture, Natural Environment, Science, and Social Science.

In 1981, the emphasis in policy on innovation rather than pure science increased so the SRC became the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC).

In 1983 the ARC also changed its focus to outputs rather than methods to become the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC).

From 1992 the Research Councils reported to the Office of Science and Technology in the Cabinet Office as the making of government departmental policy by the Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser was merged with the making of national science policy by the Science Branch of the Department of Education and Science.

SERC struggled to combine three incompatible business models - administratively efficient short duration grant distribution, medium term commitments to international agreements, long term commitments to staff and facilities provision. Given a lack of control over international exchange rates, and the need to meet long term commitments, cuts regularly fell on the short term grant allocation which became unreliable, and so alienated the UK research community which it supported.

In 1994 SERC finally split[6] into the EPSRC and PPARC to further separate innovation orientated engineering from pure curiosity motivated research into particle physics and astronomy. One year later in 1995, the CCLRC was spun out of the EPSRC dividing responsibility for laboratories from those for the allocation of university research grants[7]).

In 1994 parts of the SERC and the AFRC were combined to form the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

From 1995 the Research Councils reported to the Office of Science and Technology in the Department of Trade and Industry as the making of government science policy became more tightly linked to national industrial policy.

In 2002 Research Councils UK was created to bring together the Research Councils at their higher organisational levels to enable them to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities.

In 2005 the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) was created from the former Arts and Humanities Research Board, which had been managed by the British Academy since 1998, to bring funding of research in these fields into line with that for other disciplines.

From 2006 the Research Councils reported to the Office of Science and "Innovation" instead of "Technology", as the policy focus switched from technology objects to innovation process, although it was still within the Department of Trade and Industry.

In April 2007 PPARC and CCLRC were combined to form the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to create a single Research Council which provides access for UK scientists to national and international research facilities.[8][9]

From June 2007 the Research Councils reported to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills as the making of innovation policy was merged with the making of policy for universities and skills training, and separated from industrial policy (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform).

In 2008 RCUK Shared Services Centre Ltd (SSC) was created as a separate company so that the Research Councils could share low level administrative processes, thereby saving costs and increasing their efficiency in procuring research.

From June 2009 the Research Councils reported to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as the making of higher education and innovation policy (from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) was merged back with business policy making (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform).


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