Ensuring our research and innovation ecosystem thrives


iStockThis week University Alliance has published its report on what is needed to future-proof Britain’s research and innovation ecosystem.   We argue that complex interactions are needed to ensure this ecosystem  thrives, and that a thriving research and innovation ecosystem plays a major role in the UK’s global success.  It drives our economy, encourages prosperity and growth in our local regions, and offers new solutions to the global challenges that we face in the 21st century.

Future blog posts about this area will look at the impact that research and innovation in Alliance universities is having, in the UK and globally. But in this article, I will explore why it is vital for universities, funders and government to ensure that the ecosystem thrives.

We are living in a globalised, fast-paced, highly-competitive world.  The UK accounts for 3.2 per cent of global expenditure on research and development and has less than 1 per cent of the world’s population. Despite this, the UK has the most productive research base among the G7 and other leading nations.   It produces 6.4 per cent of global journal articles, 11.6 per cent of citations and 15.8 per cent of the world’s most highly cited articles.[1]

This is a record to be proud of, and it is largely to the credit of the UK’s universities which carry out almost three-quarters of publicly funded R&D in the UK.  They are highly connected, with the networks and resources to build essential links between all the different agents across the ecosystem, bringing the world’s knowledge to the UK and the UK’s expertise to the world.

But global competition is fierce, from both developed and emerging research systems.  That is why the first and most important recommendation in University Alliance’s report Evolve. Connect. Succeed – Funding a healthy research and innovation ecosystem is that we need continued investment in world leading and internationally excellent research wherever it is found, and at globally competitive levels. Investment in our ecosystem is an investment in the future – in a high-skilled, high-growth knowledge economy and in our ability to meet great societal challenges.

We all know that public finances in the UK are under pressure.  Therefore we should endeavour to use taxpayers’ money wisely.  A healthy ecosystem needs to run cost-effectively and efficiently, raising productivity by using the existing expertise and capacity in the system.

Universities with their networks and connections, linking local communities to global research partners, offer an enviable connectivity that is essential for the creation of world-leading science in the 21st century.  This connectivity delivers strong collaborations and relationships with businesses, charities and governments to advance knowledge and understanding of the big economic, social and cultural challenges we face.

In Evolve. Connect. Succeed, University Alliance sets out four essential requirements for making this a reality. While I also urge you to read the report in full, I add here my thoughts on the role these requirements have to play.

Selectivity drives excellence

The message is simple here. Selectivity encourages evolution and excellence, and being selective means open, competitive and peer reviewed funding allocations. Alongside this we need a dual support system that balances funding for projects with un-hypothecated funding that can be used strategically, and to reconfirm the long-standing consensus that universities are the best place to deliver research.

The key to maximising selectivity is to fund excellence wherever it is found. University Alliance is not alone in thinking this. Ministers and key political figures of all stripes also agree with this principle – most recently the Universities Minister Greg Clark at the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee this week. Funding excellence wherever it appears ultimately drives greater excellence.

Nurturing new talent future proofs the system

The next generation of researchers is essential to our future capability and must be nurtured in every discipline.  The report identifies a worrying trend towards the concentration of funding for postgraduate training. This risks excluding many excellent experienced researchers and research units from the task of nurturing future talent, which has serious consequences for access, diversity and social mobility. This is a threat to the future viability of our research and innovation ecosystem.

Alliance universities teach over 20 per cent of the UK’s undergraduates and 16 per cent of its postgraduates.  It increased its share of PhDs by 26 per cent in the last REF period.  We are always looking for new ways to equip our students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their chosen career. Alliance Universities are working together to launch a new Doctoral Training Alliance in Applied Biosciences for Health this Autumn. The training programme will be developed with business to make sure it is suited to the industry careers these students are most likely to embark upon.

Collaboration enhances the system

Selectivity and future-proofing our talent will result in an ecosystem equipped with a diverse range of skills, expertise and activities. A healthy ecosystem thrives from bringing together complementary strengths through collaborations and partnerships.   It allows existing capacity to be fully realised and exploited in innovative ways. Collaboration will also drive out duplication and inefficiency.

The importance of collaboration has been enshrined in the government’s science and innovation strategy for the next decade.  Connectivity, collaboration and openness are essential to the future of world-leading science: teams of people, not individuals, have driven the advances of the modern technological age.

Responsiveness delivers the greatest benefit from research

The future health of the ecosystem relies on us being able to adapt and respond to a fast-changing environment. We need to build responsiveness into our approach so that the different parts of the system can engage rapidly with each other, forge fresh and valuable connections, and exploit new knowledge in smart and effective ways.

Excellence also embraces impact.  University Alliance’s new web resource of impact case studies tells a compelling story of the relevance and breadth of benefits that research has brought to our society.  That is why this report calls on the funding councils to continue to recognise and reward impact when they evaluate research quality – building on the impact case study approach they pioneered for the REF 2014 exercise.

[1] UK Science and Innovation Network

Further reading