How has Covid-19 impacted policy priorities?

How has Covid-19 impacted policy priorities?

Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London, explains why now is the time to invest more, not less in research and innovation. This article was first published as part of the State of the Relationship 2020 report. Durham uni website

The COVID-19 pandemic has put UK science in the spotlight like never before. Our scientists have led the way in modelling the outbreak, made leaps forward in drug discovery, rapid testing and vaccine development. Their determination, excellence and agility have been inspiring and have re-enforced the UK’s reputation as a science superpower.

One of the main reasons why our scientists were able to respond quickly in those crucial early weeks in the pandemic was due to sustained government investment in research along with the availability of rapid funding streams, from government, industry and philanthropy. Together, these support mechanisms positively reinforced each other.

An example of how quickly research at Imperial was able to progress is that of my colleague Robin Shattock and his team who, over the years, have been steadily advancing a new concept in vaccine technology: a self-amplifying RNA vaccine. Much of this fundamental research was made possible by sustained EU and UK government grants. When COVID-19 emerged, they swiftly obtained its genetic code from China and, within 14 days, had a sample vaccine to test on animals and prepare for human trials. This record speed was achieved thanks to some generous and flexible funding from philanthropists, which bridged the gap and allowed the research to move forward before government and private investors caught up and stepped in. 

During the crisis, academic and industry collaborations have played a critical role in a research-led recovery from the effects of COVID-19. Strengthening the UK’s health resilience will prevent future waves of novel diseases from damaging our economic recovery and ensure the UK is a world leader in crucial scientific fields. We must continue to bring our best innovations forward to improve health services and support the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, researchers from Imperial, Google Health, DeepMind, the NHS and Northwestern University in the US have shown that a computer algorithm is as effective as human radiologists in spotting breast cancer from x-ray images.

The UK must seize the opportunity to expand our R&D investment

A strong and sustainable research base where grant-funded research is supported at levels closer to full economic cost will allow us to intensify and expand our role in the innovation-driven knowledge economy, our STEM skills training, and our investment in critical research infrastructure and networks. The government’s existing commitment to increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2020 will be crucial for UK world-class science to play a central role in many different challenges that are central to our well being.

Green technology is an opportunity we must embrace

The green recovery must be at the heart of our strategy. This is a unique opportunity for government, universities, industry and civic partners to work together to progress towards the net zero carbon target and will cement the UK as a global leader in green technology.

At Imperial, investment and support from industry partner ABB helped us establish a £2 million carbon capture pilot plant that enables students at the College to develop the skills needed for energy plants in the future. Companies like Rolls-Royce are also working with university researchers to develop underpinning science to ultimately enable the transition to all-electric flight. Incentivising innovation partnerships will catalyse progress in new industries such as hydrogen and fuel cell technologies as we work to achieve low-carbon energy systems.

A further initiative at Imperial is called “Transition to Zero Pollution”- a pioneering programme in research, education and innovation that will lead to fundamental changes in the way materials are used in manufacturing, how we produce food and energy, and will help mitigate the impact of air pollution on people's health. One of our spinouts, Lixea, is enabling the shift away from a reliance on using fossil fuels in single-use products, which are discarded at the end of their lives, by making recyclable and reusable plastics from waste plant matter enabling a ‘circular’ bio-economy.

The UK needs to build innovation districts centred around universities

We know that the impact of the pandemic, coupled with uncertainty around the UK’s future relationship with the EU, could leave British research funding in a precarious position. The government’s R&D Roadmap calls on industry, research organisations and local authorities to drive collaboration to “boost productivity, improve public services, create high-quality jobs and deliver economic and societal benefits to communities across the UK”. Investment in our world-leading universities drives high quality scientific output which has impact far beyond campus boundaries and supports valuable collaborations with research partners across the UK for the benefit of society as a whole.

One way to achieve this is to create innovation districts that are embedded within their local communities. It is important to engage members of a community in meaningful ways while drawing in businesses, local government, start-ups and SMEs to collaborate with university research groups. Our White City campus is at the heart of the White City innovation ecosystem in one of London’s most deprived areas. Our campus supports people of all ages and backgrounds to apply their ideas to emerging technologies. It is just one example of how universities can act locally to contribute to an inclusive recovery across the UK.

We are building ‘innovation bridges’ with our partners to enable the translation of technology and sharing of experience to accelerate local innovation. We have mapped how investment in our excellent research and innovation collaborations powers dynamic local economics across the country with advanced technologies and skills that underpin vital public services and industries. For example, our academics are improving the safety of offshore energy developments to improve productivity of wind farms east of Hull in the North Sea.

At Imperial, we are working with industry, policymakers and the public, to ensure that our research and innovation is people-centred, relevant and responsive to the needs of the society. Businesses and universities have the knowledge base, facilities and collective geographical reach to have a big impact. The UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic will be a lot more than a bounce back to normal if we fully embrace these opportunities.

This article was first published as part of the State of the Relationship 2020 report. 

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