Research funding, universities and the place agenda

Research funding, universities and the place agenda

By Professor David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University

 

universities and placeWhile regionalism and place have been climbing the agenda for several years, a new Conservative majority built on a swathe of northern, de-industrialised towns, has given the Government a stronger impetus than ever to boost regional economic growth and tackle the entrenched structural problems within the UK economy.

A commitment has already been made to increase spending on research and development from 1.7 to 2.4% of GDP (and eventually 3%). This represents a huge uplift – more than double our current investment levels and around £60 billion in today’s money. If met, it represents a huge opportunity to boost domestic growth. In that context, examining the relationship between R&D and local economic growth seemed like a timely topic for the 9th roundtable in London South Bank University’s ongoing Policy Breakfast Series.

One of the most fundamental issues addressed was how we define place and region both in terms of delivery and local accountability. Local accountability exists on a number of different levels – from councils (be they district, county or unified) and LEPs to metro mayors and combined regional authorities. It has also become clear that, whereas regional funding initiatives in the past have focused on cities (such as the Northern Powerhouse partnership), the places most left behind are the towns on their outskirts which have never recovered from de-industrialisation. Although at one level there may be a concern that money passed to cities may not reach these towns, regional cities too are crying out for investment. Outside London, Bristol is the only city region in England, which had labour productivity above the UK average in 2017.

One of the most fundamental issues addressed was how we define place and region both in terms of delivery and local accountability.

The complexity of local accountability and devolved control is exacerbated when we overlay one type of funding over another. We are moving to a funding landscape which includes a wide range of sources including the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the Connecting Capability Fund, Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Strength in Places Fund. Coordinated funding decisions will be required to ensure the greatest economic and social benefits. It was therefore very welcome to hear that UKRI and BEIS are now developing a place-based strategy towards R&D taking into account both the 2.4% R&D ambition and the development of the UKSPF. There was a clear consensus that there was no one-size-fits all policy and that different solutions would be needed for different areas. And just as there needed to be new and flexible definitions of place, there also needed to be wider definitions of excellence.

A fundamental research collaboration between the University of Cambridge and a nearby med-tech company, is likely to look very different from a translational collaboration between the University of Huddersfield and a local engineering firm. Both are excellent in their own right but different. If we are to support a wider range of research, we will need a richer definition of excellence encapsulating a wider range of impact even possibly including social and geographic factors.

As things stand, the measurement of research excellence by field-weighted citations, provides little incentive for researchers to tackle local social or economic issues and funding for fundamental research far outweighs that of translational research. Only 1% of the public R&D budget for example, is allocated to Innovate UK core grants. This prevents our world leading discoveries being translated into tangible economic and social benefit.

It was hoped by attendees of our breakfast meeting that the introduction of the KEF (Knowledge Exchange Framework) might soon serve as a counterbalance to this by raising the esteem for collaborative research between universities and businesses. However, given that the Higher Education Innovation Fund is only worth £250 million, out of approximately the £35 billion spent on R&D, only an increase in funding for this applied research and innovation is likely to drive behaviour change.

The uplift to 2.4% provides the opportunity to address this disparity seriously – providing substantial investment into the kind of applied and translational research that can drive economic and social improvement on the ground without sacrificing our support of excellence.

A funding shift of this kind will help change the mind-set of academics and universities, encouraging them to further engage with their local communities and to ensure that their research outcomes have meaning to their local stakeholders – providing both economic and policy impact. The health sector is one potential model to look towards – receiving one of the highest proportions of translational research, many academics within health schools also continue their professional practice and therefore understand the needs of end service users.

And Higher Education Institutions, as anchor institutions within their communities, are uniquely placed to support this – providing a key interface between research infrastructure, local businesses and public sector organisations, to tackle local issues. Universities need to engage in shaping how they can best contribute.

 

Published: 18 February 2020

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