UK Research and Innovation launched this month (April). As well as absorbing Research Councils and Innovate UK, to help smooth the pathways from discovery and translational research to commercially and socially valuable benefit, the new organisation also established Research England. This body will oversee functions in relation to university research and knowledge exchange.
The largest block of resources distributed by Research England is quality-related or QR funding that, along with equivalent funding streams in devolved administrations, provides the bedrock of the UK research base. QR funding enables universities to respond quickly to new opportunities for collaboration, nurture early-career researchers, form strategic partnerships with businesses and charities and cover the cost of working with funders who do not meet the full cost of research (EU, charities and Research Councils, for example). It is no exaggeration to suggest that QR funding is the ‘secret sauce’ that has allowed UK universities to deliver such outstanding research performance with such modest overall amounts of money. Its allocation in response to universities’ performance in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is one of the reasons that the REF acts as such a strong incentive for universities to deliver strong research and high impact.
Research England also leads the vitally important £900m UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) in England. It recently announced an overall increase of £70m to enable universities help deliver key elements of the government’s industrial strategy, place-based innovation, and global challenges.
“Academics and businesses must continuously overcome naturally-occurring cultural challenges that flow from different reward-structures, timescales, and pre-occupations.”
Such funding is absolutely vital if UK businesses and third-sector organisations are to work successfully with the higher education research base. But it is more important than even that laudable ambition. It is profoundly connected to the four great challenges of industrial strategy, sector deals, post-Brexit-competitiveness, and growing UK R&D to 2.4% by 2027. Sector deals announced by April 2018 include those for Life Sciences, Automotive, and Creative Industries, with AI and others in the pipeline. Furthermore, the UK government intends to work with the devolved administrations on boosting regional specialisms, and these governments have their own plans for new growth.
These ambitious strategies would be hard to deliver in stable times, but will be even more complicated to land in a new Age of Uncertainty driven by the inexorable and disruptive rise of machine learning and AI (even shorn of the hype), and the complex – and regionally patchy – emergence of that skein of data, cloud and cognitive computing, cyber-security and internet of objects we call Industry and Business 4:0. Add to this, rapid advances in the scientific and research capability of competitor economies and the role of Research England and UKRI becomes ever more important. If we can incentivise patient long-term research funding, insightful innovation investment, and patient capital then the conditions for success can be established. To reach for a metaphor: we can build a thriving eco-system in the global swamp.
Money, however, is only one part of the story. Academics and businesses must continuously overcome naturally-occurring cultural challenges that flow from different reward-structures, timescales, and pre-occupations. Our research at the NCUB has consistently demonstrated that a large percentage of researchers engage with the outside world, and around a third with companies in various ways. We also know that when academics start young they continue external engagement throughout their career.
That is why our site, ncub.co.uk, is going interactive. In the summer, we will embed all the usual social media features to enable our business and university members to network more effectively. When funding meets culture, fabulous things happen. And the UK needs fabulous things to thrive.
By David Docherty, CEO, National Centre for Universities and Business