If the UK is to increase investment in Research and Development (R&D) to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, making business an integral partner of the R&D system is crucial. Achieving this target will require businesses to invest an estimated £18 billion pounds more each year in R&D than they do today.

In NCUB’s response to the Government’s consultation on the R&D Roadmap, we outlined the need to attract more R&D intensive businesses and investment, as well as encouraging other businesses to become more innovative and R&D focussed.

The availability of a skilled workforce is a major factor influencing business investment in R&D. Research from the Royal Academy of Engineering found that investors felt that the quality of the UK’s R&D workforce was high but the quantity was a challenge. Indeed, a recent survey found that there was a shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers in STEM as 89% of STEM businesses struggle to recruit.

To attract more workers, the Government must develop a holistic, cross-departmental approach in collaboration with businesses and universities. The Industrial Strategy Green Paper, published in January 2017, outlined the difficulties caused with no organisation being “tasked with identifying persistent or emerging sector specific gaps and proposing action.” The paper called for “a single, authoritative view of the gaps faced by the UK now and in the future”.

NCUB believes that it’s important the Government acts on the above recommendation and the establishment for the Office for Talent is welcome. Only when government departments, business and universities are on the same page about current and future skills needs can we develop a strategy to develop a workforce in these areas. This is even more the case now with the Covid-19 pandemic, making it currently difficult to be certain of the levels of skill shortages in certain sectors.

Another challenge presented by Covid-19 and highlighted this week is the long-standing impact this will have for those currently in education. We should remember that it’s not just those students who are currently receiving grades whose learning has been affected but all those in education. There needs to be real strategic thinking about how to ensure that this does not have a long-lasting impact in the UK’s talent pipeline.

A more joined-up, holistic approach would also help address the long-standing issue of diversity in STEM careers. This is fundamental to getting the skilled workforce the UK needs but change has been too slow. A specific recommendation NCUB made in our response to the R&D Roadmap was to expand on the success of Future Leaders Fellowships (FLF) so there are fellowships specifically for UK citizens with protected characteristics and from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As well as developing the skilled workforce that businesses need, it is important that researchers are able to gain the maximum value out of their work. University spin outs have been growing in the UK and these could be developed further if all PhD students had the opportunity to develop their commercialisation skills while studying.

It is welcome that the roadmap recognised that technicians are vital to R&D. There have been long-standing skill shortages in these roles. As well as ensuring more UK citizens enter these roles, it is important to attract international talent. There are relatively straight-forward steps the Government could take to address this:

Adding all technician roles to the Shortage Occupation List for the new Points Based Immigration System.
Giving Catapult Centres a clearer remit to put workforce development on par with technology development in their list of responsibilities.

Some Catapult Centres have had a central role in skills development for technicians (such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC)) but the picture is mixed. As a recent study showed, they could all be playing a central role in the provision of high-quality apprenticeship training for emerging technologies.

The above are a couple of measures the Government could take immediately. However, developing the skilled workforce required for the UK reaching the 2.4% target will take time – ensuring a clear and consistent approach from the Government is an essential first step.

NCUB’s R&D Taskforce will be looking into the Government’s forthcoming R&D plan in more detail. If you would like to discuss the talent and skills workstream, please do get in touch via chris.russell@ncub.co.uk.