2018 was certainly lively.
In the world of research and knowledge exchange we saw: two changes of science minister in Westminster; a new science minister in Scotland; a new leader of the Welsh Government; a new Government Chief Scientific Adviser; the creation of UK Research and Innovation and the Office for Students; the publication of a White Paper on Immigration – not to mention the launch of a review of Research Pooling in Scotland, the publication of my review of research and innovation in Wales, several ‘sector deals’ under the industrial strategy and a new Chief Executive at NCUB. Phew!
Is this year going to be quieter? I doubt it. A widely anticipated Government spending review creates opportunities and threats for business innovation. Philip Augar’s review of higher education funding threatens chaos across the university sector if it goes wrong. UKRI has moved through its formative stages at high speed and is now introducing exciting new initiatives in research, innovation and knowledge exchange. And of course there is Brexit.
Research England have published proposals for a new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) for universities – sitting alongside existing arrangements for assessing research and teaching performance. NCUB made significant contributions to the development of the KEF, particularly by feeding in views from the business community. We now look forward to vivid graphical descriptions of university knowledge exchange that build on existing data. This plays strongly to the feedback we received from business: keep it simple and keep it clear.
Another exciting prospect for 2019 is the Government’s widely anticipated plan to deliver an increase in overall R&D investment in the UK to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. NCUB wrote to Government on this topic last autumn, summarising proposals from member meetings. The then science minister, Sam Gyimah originally planned to publish a plan towards the end of 2018 but that schedule was overtaken by events and we now look forward to a spring 2019 publication.
This is important. Historic underinvestment in R&D is reflected in stubbornly low productivity and unacceptable disparities in regional economic performance. NCUB and others have demonstrated that relationships between business and universities in this country are strong by international comparison – but not strong enough.
One persistent characteristic of the UK is that we have one of the world’s strongest research communities and one of the world’s strongest financial sectors but – we have no idea how to bring them together.
Venture capital investment in science-based businesses is pretty good and getting better. Global corporations continue to find the UK a particularly attractive location for R&D investment – so much so that it is difficult to keep track of new foreign direct investments in R&D. Public spending on R&D – though UKRI – is growing steeply.
But the overall level of R&D investment remains well below the average of OECD member countries. A practical plan for raising R&D investment in the UK would not only be welcomed widely but would provide a vision for the UK beyond the current stage of the Brexit process.