It’s taken 18 months for the government to respond to University of Birmingham vice-chancellor Adam Tickell’s review of bureaucracy in the UK’s research landscape, which found that unnecessary red tape – particularly within research institutions and funders – was impeding efficiency and productivity. The government’s response sets out ‘rapid action’ to alleviate some of the most pressing problems, but calls for a longer-term shift across the sector – with reform needed within all institutions.

The detailed response outlines how systems are already being streamlined and simplified, but also includes some new announcements. For example, the national funding agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has now been told to ‘have due regard for reducing bureaucracy’ in all new programmes. The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) will establish a team ‘to identify areas of creeping, unnecessary bureaucracy’ and recommend how to remove them. It will also judge whether UKRI is meeting its new mandate.

The problem is that not everyone agrees on what is ‘unnecessary’ bureaucracy or how it can be measured. To try to address the challenges of monitoring bureaucracy, UKRI will publish a study later this year on understanding the benefits and burdens of funding processes and highlight opportunities for improvement. UKRI will have to demonstrate progress every three years in response to these findings. It’s also been asked to look at the future of data collection relating to research impacts, including no longer using Researchfish, a platform that collects impact-related data, from 2025. Other changes include making grant management more flexible depending on the nature of the research and removing the requirement for letters of support in applications wherever possible.

The government used the opportunity to point out that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is ‘a prominent source of research bureaucracy’ and warned that the next REF will ‘be significantly and measurably less bureaucratic’. REF cost universities £471 million in 2021, up from £246 million in 2014; this is around 3-4% of the funding dependent on the exercise.

Ottoline Leyser, UKRI chief executive, welcomed the government’s response and noted that UKRI has already made good progress towards delivering many of the actions mentioned in the review. This includes a new funding service under its simpler, better funding programme, which is a single, user-centred service meant to reduce the burden of finding, applying for and managing research funding.

‘It is encouraging to see all the work underway to reduce research bureaucracy and the significant alignment and collaboration across the research ecosystem,’ comments Lucy Chappell, chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR). ‘There will always be a need for systems and processes to manage the thousands of applications we receive each year, and to account for public expenditure, but we must strive to get the balance right.’ NIHR will soon be launching a new simplified single awards management system.