The unprecedented Covid19 pandemic crisis has presented enormous challenges, but also opportunities – to work together and to strive for our communities, our national economic recovery and our commitment to global co-operation and problem-solving for wider societal prosperity.  The partnership between businesses and universities has been a critical part of addressing this crisis – whether working together on vaccines or patient health, or manufacturing and making from ventilators to hand sanitisers, to the human dimension of communication, culture and entertainment.

But we now need to set ourselves on the path from crisis through recovery and into success. The work set in train by the UK Government in its publication of the Research & Development roadmap is then a critical development.

We believe that the strong inter-connections between universities and businesses will be a vital part of achieving success – through the roles these partners play in the wider research and development and innovation system, and through the contributions they make to wider stability, growth in jobs and wealth, use of skills and talent, innovation and productivity. We believe there are four important steps on the way through the roadmap.

First, strong partnerships require strong partners. Important steps have been taken to support the stability of businesses and universities. Government and national initiatives will only work though with the engagement and commitment of universities and business themselves and working together.

Second we need evidence. We need to understand the choices that organisations are making and will make, when they will make them, and consequences of those choices for other partners and the system as a whole. Timing and sequencing are important. We need to gain data at the right time to understand the trajectories of different choices, so we can open up opportunities for collaboration, coordination and intervention. This includes raising understanding of critical timepoints for universities and for businesses – the start of the academic year, the start of the financial year etc. We need to understand sequencing – the steps that organisations will take to identify their market conditions, their human resource and financial decision-making and then the consequences then for partnerships. This includes timings of national interventions such as the furlough scheme.

We also need to gain the right level of detail in evidence. The pharmaceutical industry will have a different course to aerospace or automotive; a multi-disciplinary research university in the south will have a different course and community context to a mono-disciplinary HE provider in the north. Small and large businesses will have different pressures and timings. Different cost or market pressures may drive different industry sectors to bringing R&D in-house or outsourcing more to the university and research base. Universities and businesses will have an interest in short, medium and long-term talent and skills needs and how to identify those needs and when.  Getting the right evidence at the right time will be critical to better informed and co-ordinated working across universities and business and support UKRI in the right systems interventions.

NCUB is now well placed to provide greater support to universities, businesses and policy-makers on evidence through its work with the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge and the University Commercialisation and Innovation policy evidence unit at the University of Cambridge UCI.

Third, evidence needs to inform decisions and actions that can strengthen organisations, sectors and partnerships. Leadership is critical in this situation – not just the facts that underpin decision-making, but the insights and wisdom that help face challenges, set courses, make choices, and above all have honest conversations with partners and stakeholders toward getting the system as a whole to pull together. NCUB’s network of strategic partners is well placed to provide these insights.

Finally, NCUB’s evidence and insights can provide important building blocks to understanding the R&D&I system as a whole, and hence can make important national policy contribution. This is particularly important in the context of the Government’s R&D roadmap which seeks to take a holistic view to shape UK capacity for the long-term. We can announce today that David Sweeney and Sam Laidlaw have agreed to set up a taskforce that will  bring together NCUB’s strategic network with policy-makers, and build on NCUB’s evidence and insight work, to produce a set of policy recommendations to further university business links for the long-term. These recommendations will inform UKRI’s including Research England, approach to the R&D roadmap challenges.