It’s all funds and games…

It’s all funds and games…

By Zakaria Ismail, Place Research Analyst; Nick Dagnall, Research & Innovation Project Manager, National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB)

 

Funds and gamesLast Friday, the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation gave his first major speech since being reappointed to the post after the December General Election.

Chris Skidmore promisingly promised a “One Nation government committed to levelling up” the whole UK through doubling the public R&D budget and proportional distribution of funding. The announcement of far greater public investment in research was not new, but the speech did offer a clear signal of where additional funding is likely to go.

Admitting the present disparities, with a monopoly in the South, the Minister called on all to imagine the future possibilities. The Minister set out the ambitions of the North, emphasising the underlying strength and flexibility of nationwide partnerships, driven by collaborations, clusters and catapults.

And yet, in pursuit of funding fairness and R&I metrics, our gaze slips from the true target: not 2.4% by 2027 or peace for professionals, but real impact across all parts of the UK. And by no stretch of the imagination should this be forgotten.

Monopoly

The differences in the level of funding across the country was a key focus for the speech, backed up by data from the Office for National Statistics (graph). The headline statistic concerned the 52% of gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) going to London, the South East, and East of England regions; in addition, 43% of Quality-Related grants are assigned to researchers in just the “so-called ‘Golden Triangle’”. Without doubt, transparency of the regional disparities in research funding is an important first step in tackling what Chris Skidmore described as a “long-standing issue”. There is lots of new data to consider and undoubtedly experts, at NCUB and beyond, will be poring over it for weeks to come.

Gross Expenditure R and D

Trivial Pursuit

The speech alludes to the fact that "collaboration between industry and academics" is a key theme in UKRI’s infrastructure opportunities report, and it is this that will be expected to "deliver the uplift in the doubling of the R&D budget". The government will look to embark on the "largest ever expansion of university R&D right across the UK" by building partnerships and developing alliances between existing universities, including utilising the academic strength of universities in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber regions. Increasing R&D within business will be sought alongside the university R&D expansion.

Whilst it is admirable that this ambition spreads further than universities, research must not be so world-leading that it leaves our own citizens behind. Thus those in charge of affairs of state must not measure their duty by a 2.4% commitment but by impact on communities and a growth in prosperity and opportunity. For example, as the Chief Scientific Advisor reminded us at the recent CaSE lecture, discussions sharing the methodology, successes and joy of science can encourage a range of positive social attitudes and actions, whilst restoring public faith in all areas of scientific practice. With impact leaving grant applications but remaining and evolving in KEF, the onus will fall on universities to attend to their civic mission and to societal transformation.

Connect Four

We must connect for resilience, suitability, growth and impact. The Minister correctly stated that "collective capability … is greater than the sum of its parts". The government’s hopes are for more examples like work between the Leeds University’s Bragg Centre and Imperial College and at the Henry Royce Institute, because these unite the North and South – with missions, funding and personal relationships. In regard to “North and South”, perhaps it would be better to look at the unique capabilities, similarities and differences of universities rather than their geographical location. Our "One Nation" nation should support not by the mysterious location of a North-South divide but rather on merit and need. Furthermore, just as our definition and perceived richness of impact has developed then so must our application of it, supporting and rewarding the sprouting partnerships on which it is founded and exhibited.

We are not interested in imagining this future. Rather we will do our best, with universities and business alike, to realise it.

 

Published: 27 January 2020

Expand for more