Science and Innovation: future-proofing the ecosystem

Chancellor speaking at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult Summit in Coventry

Chancellor speaking at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult Summit in Coventry
Credit: Crown Copyright

It has probably not escaped the notice of many who work in our field that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is due to announce a 10 year plan for UK Science and Innovation as part of his Autumn Statement. Today marks the formal end of an extensive consultation exercise and is a timely opportunity to reflect on what we may have lost track of during the frenzied discussions – that what Mr Osborne reads out at the Dispatch box on 3 December will echo down the halls of academia and beyond.

Secure our future by investing sufficiently in science

One thing is clear: the UK’s future is the knowledge economy – 80 percent of new jobs are in high-skill areas, and new and growth industries are taking a high-tech and high-skill approach. The excellent world-leading research carried out in our universities allows the UK to capitalise on emerging market opportunities. Rapidly-growing, innovative companies – especially smaller ones – rely on universities’ knowledge and networks to expand and succeed. At the same time universities are developing the research-rich entrepreneurs of the future.

For the UK to prosper through the knowledge economy, universities are best placed to maximise return on investment. But research and innovation activities need committed and sustained funding. Other countries are snapping at our heels. The UK is hugely under-investing in science, spending just 0.5 percent of GDP in public funding for research, as opposed to an OECD average of 0.8 percent. We and the Government need to be ambitious about our future – at the very least by bringing the UK’s investment in line with international averages for research and development.

Channel HEIF to universities that are helping SMEs

The Government’s Strategy must also acknowledge UK’s universities’ role as a crucial conduit for funding innovation activities. Despite under-investment, our universities punch well above their weight in terms of efficiency and productivity. They are also world leaders at collaborating with business, and this strength should be used to improve other areas of the innovation system that are currently underperforming.

For example, our small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are a driving force of innovation in our economy and responsible for half of new jobs created. But they spend much less on R&D activities than our global competitors. Alliance universities are using their connectedness, research expertise and business collaborations to increase the innovative capacity of SMEs and investment of private funds in research and development. But this element of university work – what’s known as the ‘third mission’ – is massively underfunded. As Sir Andrew Witty’s review highlighted last year, Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) must be increased if we are serious about supporting our small and rapidly innovating companies so that they can fulfil their potential in helping our economy to grow. HEIF also needs to be channelled to those universities who are demonstrating excellence in SME engagement by increasing the weighting for these activities during the allocation process. This would incentivise this activity more widely, maximise existing hubs of SME connectedness and recognise the larger commitment required to develop these crucial (but resource-consuming) interactions with larger numbers of SME partners.

Fund research excellence, wherever it is found

Key to all of this is British science – a national success story. We want it to continue to drive innovation through the knowledge economy. We need to maintain its position as a world leader in research, attracting inward investment by its quality. To do this, we need to recognise strengths across the system by continuing to seek and fund research according to excellence, wherever it is found. This has been proven to drive quality, and applies to the whole spectrum of research activities – open innovation also needs open competition.

That is why we are concerned about recent trends in postgraduate research funding. By concentrating funding, the pool of postgraduate students is narrowing (with all of the dire consequences associated with less diversity) and we fail to make the most of the fullest range of research and enterprise skills, not to say disciplines and specialisms, that the UK higher education sector boasts expertise in. In a rapidly changing world we cannot afford to limit the talent and scope of our future workforce, especially when many of the key jobs of tomorrow have not even been conceived of today.

Make the most of existing connectivity in the ecosystem

Finally, connectivity, collaboration and openness are all essential to the future of our world-leading science and the health of our research and innovation ecosystem. Alongside efficiency savings (i.e. through asset sharing which University Alliance is working to extend to the wider research ecosystem), the connectedness of our universities means they work with the best complementary partners regionally, nationally and internationally. Outward-facing universities can act as hubs to help those outside in business, charities, government and communities access knowledge more easily – an approach that University Alliance institutions have taken to heart on every campus.

So as civil servants begin to sift through the submissions and weigh up evidence to piece together the Science and Innovation Strategy, we urge them to remember the many strengths that exist in our research ecosystem, which has enabled UK science to lead the world and our economy to grow. It is because of this we urge them, and Mr Osborne, to continue to fund research excellence, wherever it is found.

Read University’s Alliance full submission to the BIS Science and Innovation Strategy Survey here.

Further reading