Below is NCUB’s Sam Laidlaw’s speech transcript which was delivered at University UK’s Annual Conference in September 2021. Sam Laidlaw is NCUB’s Chairman and he spoke alongside Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of Government Science and Engineering Profession, Sir Patrick Vallance and other industry experts. The agenda item was titled “What does the country need from its universities in a post-pandemic recovery?”.

“The importance of universities collaborating with others has been made abundantly clear during the pandemic.

From inventing, creating and distributing a vaccine in record time

…to collective efforts to produce PPE, sanitizer and breathing ventilators

…to data analytics and symptom tracking…

None of these things would have been possible without universities. But they wouldn’t have been possible without their industry partners either.

Some have argued that these breakthrough pandemic collaborations have encouraged technological optimism… A feeling that the 2020s could and should be defined by major innovation strides.

Indeed, this faith in science and the power of collaboration is rightly reflected in the UK’s Innovation Strategy and Plan for Growth. The Government views research and innovation as the defining features of the UK’s future economy.

Beyond this – science has the opportunity to transform lives. Some have suggested that the pandemic has underlined the need to develop more sustainable, equitable and resilient societies.

I would argue that the response to the pandemic has not changed what we’re striving for, but it has given us a renewed sense of confidence and optimism that progress is achievable.

That science and knowledge is the answer.

So, if I am asked what the country needs from its universities at this time of rapid change – my call is clear: Work with business and Government to determine what it would genuinely take to shift the dial on the big challenges that the world faces.

We need to ensure that the research performed in our world-leading universities, translates into impact, improved lives and livelihoods.

We need to collaborate to understand the competencies and skills that graduates will need in a rapidly changing labour market.

We also need to face up to the seismic challenges of climate change, and the products, processes and behaviours that urgently need to change to make our lives more sustainable.

Yet again, university collaboration has a life-changing… life-saving… role to play.

But whilst this feels like a time of national optimism about what knowledge can achieve, we can’t pretend that there aren’t major hurdles to overcome in the years ahead.

Business investments in research and innovation are pro-cyclical and thus at risk of contracting in times of crisis. There’s substantial and growing evidence of this.  One of our surveys showed that during the first national lockdown 81% of businesses reported delays or stoppages to research while 12% of businesses had to stop research activity altogether. This won’t recover overnight.

In my view, and speaking to colleagues in business, the pandemic could exacerbate existing gaps between R&D and innovation intensive businesses and laggard sectors. The sectors that have thrived during the pandemic will have the means to invest in the research and innovation that they will need to remain competitive in the years ahead. The ones that have suffered, will not.

An unequal growth in business research and innovation activity will not achieve the ambitions of the Innovation Strategy.

That’s why I believe that universities and businesses, working in concert, have a critical role to play in not just aiding long-term recovery, but shaping it. An innovation-driven future will bring growth, prosperity and opportunity, but it will not simply grow organically in the current environment.

Universities need to invest their time to collaborate with external partners. This needs to be a more central and deliberate part of universities’ strategic aims and measures of success.

Universities must also resist the urge to focus internally – even when they are under pressure themselves. They must remain committed to their wider purpose.

The flipside is that to deliver, universities themselves need stable investment and commitment from industry and from Government.

The Government is both an enabler and a partner in the collaboration process. Its commitment to significantly boost R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 is viewed by many of my colleagues in industry as critical to achieving the ambitions of the Innovation Strategy.

But Government is also an important customer and user of the research and skills produced by universities too, as Sir Patrick’s Review on how to boost scientific activity and expenditure within Government Departments makes clear.

All the signals are positive – Universities, industry and Government share common purpose and commitment: they want to collaborate and invest. Now words must translate into action.

Whilst we’re all focused on the immediacy of the pandemic, there is an urgent need to consider the future… Not just the next 1-2 years, but the next 10-20 years.

The research conducted in your institutions will shape the future. Your graduates are our future scientists, engineers, healthcare workers, teachers and innovators…

In future years we can only expect the rate of scientific process and business transformation to be event faster. The changing labour market more rapid. The need for responsiveness even greater.

We might not be able to set 20 year strategic plans today. But we need time and space to work collaboratively on what the future might look like, and what it means for our work today.

Delivering on the promise of the age of renewed technological optimism.

That’s why I feel incredibly privileged to Chair the National Centre for Universities and Businesses, where I have the opportunity to work with our members daily on these issues that are so critical to the UK’s future.

I will pause there and look forward to the discussion.”