By Dr Emma Baxter from UCL Public Policy, on part-time secondment to NCUB during this programme of work

Ministers are often accused of exaggerating good news. But Government statements on research impact and commercialisation tend to go the other way.

In her foreword to the Industrial Strategy White Paper, the Prime Minister said “…we are not fulfilling Britain’s potential if, despite having scientists and universities renowned the world over, we cannot turn their ideas into the products and services on which the industries of the future will be built.”

The PM’s statement echoes views that are expressed widely across Government and Parliament. Where do these views come from and how does it compare to the data?

The UK is not alone in seeing itself as suffering from a mismatch between research and innovation. In June, Stian Westlake, an innovation policy expert and advisor to science minister Sam Gyimah, pointed out on Twitter that he has heard similar sentiments expressed by Americans, Australians, Canadians, Germans, Malaysians and even Israelis.

For example, a 2017 report from the Boston Consulting Group says “… the U.S. is doing the hard work of inventing new technologies, and China, among other countries, is reaping the benefits by taking those ideas and turning them into commercial products.”

Two years earlier an article in Business Insider magazine said “…the Old Continent [Europe] is not producing any of the online giants like Google, eBay or Facebook. Its best and brightest prefer to emigrate to Silicon Valley, or sell their ideas on to U.S. firms before they have a chance to establish themselves.”

Research feeds the economy by creating new businesses, improving the performance of existing ones, attracting vital foreign investment in R&D and, of course, generating highly skilled people. The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) publishes annual reports on the state of university-business collaboration in the UK. These demonstrate a huge range of exciting examples across countless business sectors and every part of the UK. They range from farming to pharmaceuticals; from insurance to engineering.

There is no linear relationship between research and the economy; most studies point to more complicated and diverse interactions highlighted in reports published from both NCUB and the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

At an international level the OECD, the World Economic Forum (WEF), and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) publish data on collaboration between universities and business. Whatever the imperfections in the data, the influence of the publishers gives it gravitas in political circles. You would think therefore, in line with Theresa May’s rhetoric, that the UK appeared well down the rankings but when you examine the data:

  • The WEF Global Competitiveness Report puts the UK consistently in the top 10 out of 160 countries for university-industry research collaborations and as high as 2nd in 2011 and 2012.

WEF University Industry Research Collaboration OECD Country Ranking

  • For its part, the OECD puts the UK well down the rankings and below the OECD average for collaborations between universities and big businesses. But its 2017 data give the UK as the top performer worldwide for collaborations between universities and small and medium-sized businesses.

OECD Scoreboard 2017 SMEs

OECD Scoreboard 2017 Large Businesses

Not only are these data reports inconsistent with the political rhetoric but also inconsistent with the focus of policy and funding. Where the current emphasis on collaborations with SMEs (for example the Higher Education Innovation Fund specifically incentivises universities to work with smaller firms). But OECD data suggests that it is collaboration with the larger firms that needs a push if we are to keep up with our international competitions.

This all comes into sharp focus as the UK Government pursues its commitment to raise total R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP. An EU study on Drivers and Policies for R&D highlights the importance of strong university-business relationships to make the country attractive to business R&D investment. Only by the best possible understanding of the UK’s strengths and weaknesses, and highly optimised funding interventions can we make the most of our performance.

Of course there is room for improvement in business – university collaboration in the UK. Indeed we must continue to improve to keep up with countries such as Switzerland, Israel and of course the US. But the UK is already performing at a high level. Further improvement cannot be achieved by universities alone. It needs businesses large and small to have confidence in the benefits of university collaboration. Robust criticism behind closed doors will help. Public criticism risks needlessly undermining the confidence.


Published: 29 November 2018