This article was first published in Research Professional and Research Fortnight. See here.

As the Omicron variant looks set to stretch the Covid pandemic into its third year, we must remember that science is continuing to carve a path to recovery. The UK is entering 2022 with a renewed sense of optimism that research and innovation can lead to longer-term solutions to the challenges of the decade ahead.

In 2021, the UK government laid out a plan to become a science superpower with research and innovation a central pillar in its Plan for Growth. The government has committed funding and policy infrastructure to achieve this, but ultimately success will depend on the whole research and innovation system working together.

This is why the UK must find ways to strengthen ties between businesses and universities. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the pandemic has disrupted these relationships.

The annual State of the Relationship report from the National Centre for Universities and Business, published on 3 December, analyses university-business collaboration in 2019-20, based on 25 indicators. This includes the first four months of the pandemic, and so starts to show its impact on university-business partnerships.

There were steep declines in the total number of interactions between universities and businesses in 2019-20 compared with the previous year. This was largely due to falling interactions between universities and small and medium-sized companies.

There were, though, some positive signs. Despite an overall decline in the number of interactions, key indicators of research commercialisation such as licences, patents and spinouts grew. Licences granted by universities grew particularly strongly, increasing 30 per cent in 2019-20 compared with the previous year.

This suggests that universities and companies were working together more than ever to translate research into business opportunities, maintaining a shared commitment despite the pandemic disruption.

Creating the right environment

Businesses across the UK need support to realise the value of R&D, and to translate discoveries into the commercial solutions that meet the challenges of our age. To create the right environment for collaboration to thrive as part of a world-leading innovation system, the UK must invest.

On this, 2021 has brought promising signs. The aspirations set out in the government’s Spending Review and Innovation Strategy, both published this year, were matched with equally ambitious spending and policy commitments, which are set to push public R&D spending to record levels.

By implementing its plan for higher R&D spending, the government has sent a clear signal to businesses around the world that the UK wants to build its research and innovation capabilities and increase private R&D. A three-year boost in public R&D funding also goes a long way towards giving universities and businesses long-term certainty and support.

However, attracting inward investment is not easy. A small number of large corporates account for most of the UK’s private R&D spending. The UK competes on a global stage for these investments, and many OECD nations are seeking to attract private R&D by making even bigger commitments to increased research spending.

A critical question will be whether the UK has done enough to attract the additional £17bn in annual private investment needed to hit the target of increasing total R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP—and to offset the impacts of higher corporation tax, an increased minimum wage, rising energy prices and supply chain challenges.

The end of 2021 has brought other economic challenges, including skill shortages, with vacancies hitting an all-time high. The continuing lack of clarity around the UK’s association to Horizon Europe adds further uncertainty. All these make the shape of the recovery of business-university interactions challenging to predict.

With the future uncertain, collaboration between industry and academia must remain a priority. After the 2008 recession, such collaborative research took two to four years to recover to pre-crisis levels.

The economic bounce-back from the immediate effects of lockdown is a positive sign, but the world’s greatest challenges require new ways of thinking and working. This could be through building up innovation clusters that bring together people, ideas and facilities, or by fostering a culture of collaboration and mobility between academia and industry.

The State of the Relationship report explores both ideas. But what is clear is that research, innovation and skills—all issues that rely on university-business collaboration—will underpin not just our recovery, but also our rejuvenation.

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