Vaccines, R&D and the Budget

Beth Button

This blog first appeared on the Higher Education Policy Institute on Wednesday 3 March. 

With the latest news that every adult in England will be offered a vaccine by the end of July, it is worth reflecting on the immense local and national collective endeavour required to realise this target and, on Budget day, we should learn from it for the role of research, innovation and universities in the UK’s post-COVID recovery.

Throughout the pandemic, universities have played a vital role in facilitating the frontline response and they are an important partner in delivering the Government’s vaccination target. While the spotlight has shone brightly and rightly on the vaccination discovery endeavours of the UK’s most research-intensive universities, what is less known is the work of institutions like Oxford Brookes and Teesside, which are doing critical work realising the benefits of vaccine discovery to support the success of the country’s vaccination effort.

The applied focus of their research has meant they have been able to use their business partnerships to commercialise the vaccination research, support skills development and facilitate the logistics of manufacturing the products at scale. This has been particularly valuable during the development phase of the vaccination roadmap. Hitting the ambitious targets is reliant on the mass production of vials and having people with the right skills to administer them.

Just last month, a more recent COVID-19 vaccination provider, Novavax, was proven to have 89% efficacy for their coronavirus vaccine. This meant that University Alliance member Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre could begin their project to develop the skills capacity within the Stockton-on-Tees region, working in partnership with industry to upskill the vaccine manufacturing workforce.

Oxford Brookes University have also been undertaking research through their spinout company, Oxford Expression Technologies, to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Awarded a grant by Innovate UK to work in partnership with Vaxine Pty Ltd, the vaccine is now in its clinical trial phase.

Both examples demonstrate the incredible value that universities like these offer to vaccination research, including in the latter stages. Sitting at the nexus between higher education and business, it is often Alliance universities that help deliver the commercialisation of findings, translational research, innovation support and skills development necessary to develop ideas into application.

Looking beyond the immediate vaccination efforts, this role will be particularly important if we are to meet the Government’s long-standing Research & Development (R&D) target of 2.4%. Against an extremely difficult economic backdrop, meeting that target will require a long-term and consistent public commitment to leverage private investment at a time where budgets will be under greater pressure across the public and private sector. Universities across the diverse research base will have a role to play in meeting the 2.4% target, and as the Chancellor lays his Budget before Parliament, he should look to a funding model that invests more in near-to-market research.

Doing so will enable universities to draw on their partnerships across the innovation system, with businesses and civil society to leverage investment, accelerating development and facilitating exploitation research activities, such as Catapults, to improve the pipeline of research and support a post-pandemic recovery.

Any medium and long-term recovery from this crisis will require innovative solutions and the Government would be wise to put universities of all sizes and natures at the heart of their strategy for building back better. As anchor institutions, Alliance universities work with local businesses and partners to catalyse regional economic growth and drive regeneration. With a deep understanding and commitment to the prosperity and sustainability of their regions, they are perfectly positioned to help deliver the Government’s levelling-up agenda, yet they remain largely absent from interventions.

It was announced last week that the Government’s ‘Levelling Up Fund’ is being extended further across the whole of the UK. This expansion is welcome, but we are no clearer on the detail on how this Fund will be administered. The Budget this week must urgently bring forward greater clarity on the Fund’s prospectus. As pointed out by Chris Husbands, Natalie Day and Richard Brabner in their recent HEPI blog, universities must be explicitly captured within the Fund’s guidance. With many universities already delivering regeneration activities in their towns and cities, the Government should seek to capitalise on this existing infrastructure to support the ambitions laid out in the Fund.

R&D is also notably absent in the ambitions of the Levelling Up Fund, despite university R&D playing an already central role in local regeneration activity. The Government should be seeking to harness the power of R&D, and particularly the breadth of the research ecosystem, within the wider levelling-up agenda. There are some green shoots in the R&D Roadmap, but there is a risk that our research-led recovery from this crisis is focused on, and driven by, institutions clustered in communities within the ‘golden triangle’, or the ‘golden V’ as Nick Hillman describes it. Regionally imbalanced R&D investment will not help tackle regional inequalities, nor deliver the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The Government’s R&D roadmap’s place strategy offers a timely opportunity to address some of these long-standing challenges and we should welcome the commitment to making the most of R&D strengths across the UK. However, structural funding must urgently be brought forward, or we risk much of the regional investment being undone. The combination of EU Structural Funds with research and innovation funding has played a vital role in regional economic development. Universities have been able to leverage these funds, alongside significant co-investment from universities, to play a critical role in further increasing private sector investment in R&D.

That’s why, at University Alliance, we have been calling for urgent clarity on the future of the replacement EU structural funds, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), and for the importance of further integration of research and innovation as a central theme of the UKSPF.

This week’s Budget is an opportunity to centre the power of research and innovation, alongside skills and infrastructure, in the Government’s plans to level-up and ‘build back better’. Universities across the research ecosystem have a vital role to play, not least in bringing together these strategic ambitions. With their strong links with business, entrepreneurial spirit and partnerships within existing civic infrastructure, Alliance-type universities can deliver a R&D-led recovery that truly levels-up our regions.

To realise this potential, we need a Levelling Up Fund that draws upon existing university expertise and infrastructure, and a UK Shared Prosperity Fund that integrates R&D and allows for the continuation of existing investment.

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