The UK is by many measures a brilliant place to do research—home to an array of leading universities, research institutes and public labs.
A significant cohort of innovative businesses—large and small— operate in sectors as diverse as life sciences, advanced manufacturing, defence and aerospace, energy, and the creative industries. And these organisations are at the forefront of addressing some of the biggest challenges and most exciting opportunities facing the world.
Yet successive expert reviews and national strategy documents have pointed to a problem. Despite fantastic research assets across different parts of the economy—government, industry, academia—researchers often feel compelled to pick a lane and stay in it.
The UK government’s 2021 R&D People and Culture Strategy set out an aspiration to move away from “narrow career paths in R&D” towards paths that were “dynamic, varied and sustainable”. When Sir Paul Nurse published his review of the UK’s research, development and innovation organisational landscape earlier this year, he stated the need to do more to encourage more people to take varied routes, to improve permeability and share insights between different organisations within the wider UK research and innovation system. A recent report by the Academy of Medical Sciences also highlighted continued barriers to career mobility in health research.
Why does this matter? Because research is changing. It is increasingly being geared towards big, complex challenges that will require multiple sectors and multiple disciplines to address. And countries around the world are looking carefully at how to redesign their research systems in a competitive drive to respond to these challenges. This is because the industries and technologies that help solve them will be the ones that will dominate the future global economy.
We therefore need to ensure that the overall research and innovation system in the UK is fit for the future. It needs to be connected, collaborative and creative. Key to this will be creating opportunities for researchers to chart new career pathways at and across the interfaces of different sectors. The prize is significant. It means a more dynamic, more impactful system with more productive and better-connected organisations, and exciting, rewarding career opportunities for all researchers.
In February 2023, The National Centre for Universities and Business established a taskforce to investigate the issue of researcher career mobility across sectors. As co-chairs of the taskforce, we brought together senior leaders from industry and academia to look at the shape and scale of mobility in the UK, to examine the barriers faced by researchers that might prevent them from building dynamic cross-sector careers, and to make recommendations to government, universities and businesses on how to capture opportunities.
We started by building an evidence base. Ncub conducted analysis on a range of data sources and undertook in-depth interviews to generate insights around how mobility varies across career stages and industrial sectors, and what the major barriers, motivations and benefits are for individuals and organisations.
Breakthroughs and barriers
This work revealed some interesting insights. Firstly, researcher mobility is a diverse activity with many different modes. It includes formal staff moves from one organisation to another, managed secondments and other time-bound arrangements, and more collaborative activities, including spending a day a week embedded in a team in another organisation, or through academic consultancy arrangements. It is also important to note that the overall system—from funders to universities to businesses—is home to some fantastic initiatives and partnerships that already do mobility well, although there are issues around the scale and consistency of programmes.
Secondly, mobility is almost universally recognised as a good thing by individuals and organisations. Our analysis shows that businesses that engage in mobility mechanisms are up to 16 per cent more likely to introduce new-to-industry innovations than other similar companies.
All organisations benefit through strengthened partnerships and connections and by accessing people with different, complementary skills. Individuals also benefit by developing better networks, gaining opportunities to develop valuable transferrable skills, and building exciting and rewarding careers that deliver impact through their research.
But it was also clear that people faced real barriers. Some felt that existing recruitment and progression frameworks did not fairly reflect valuable skills and experiences gained in other sectors. Others felt that turning away from their core research role to focus on engagement and collaboration with other sectors would put them at a disadvantage. There was a real sense that some groups were less able to manage the risks and difficulties associated with building a more ‘mobile’ research career, due to issues such as financial security, career stage, family demands, and the effects of under-representation.
Call to action
To respond, the taskforce has proposed a series of recommendations that act as a call to action to government and funders, universities and businesses, and individual researchers to capture the opportunity to build a more connected, integrated research and innovation system that enables the research careers needed to meet the global challenges of the coming decades.
To achieve this, the taskforce has built a bold vision and plan based around three pillars:
- An integrated system—a research and innovation system that is internationally renowned for the opportunity it offers researchers to build exciting careers across sectors.
- Innovative organisations—institutional environments that recognise and reward skills, knowledge and networks based on their value, and actively facilitate mobility.
- Individual pathways—career pathways across sectors that are directed by the ambitions and interests of the individual and informed by the full breadth of opportunities available.
Each pillar is supported by two headline recommendations, and for each of these we have proposed a series of tangible, practical actions that government, funders, universities, businesses and individuals can take to help the UK capture the full benefits of intersectoral mobility.
We urge everyone to read the taskforce report, published on 19 September 2023, and to consider what positive role they and their organisation can play in creating a more dynamic, interconnected research and innovation system. Through coordinated action across government, academia and industry, we can evolve the system so that it designs and supports more pathways to success.
Sam Laidlaw is chair of the National Centre for Universities and Business and executive chair of Neptune Energy, and Karen Holford is chief executive and vice-chancellor of Cranfield University.