In August 2020, the main R&D Taskforce group met for the first time and did not shy away from addressing the opportunities and challenges for UK research and development (R&D).  Drawing on experience and insights gained across a multitude of sectors and disciplines, the group identified the critical role that science, research and innovation can collectively play in driving the recovery and rejuvenation of the UK economy.  The group also highlighted how seriously other nations were taking this agenda and noted the high levels of investment globally.

It is early days for the Taskforce and through September and October 2020 evidence will be gathered and analysed. Engagement and consultation will shape the final recommendations and actions, but two early points emerged from the first meeting that will invariably shape the final output.

1) Reframing the opportunity

The R&D Roadmap reasserts the commitment to reaching 2.4% R&D investment (as a percentage of GDP) by 2027 and the Taskforce welcomed the importance of this as a target to focus the collective efforts of government, businesses and universities.

But it is possible to reframe this target to consider the market opportunity for UK R&D.  As PwC report in their Global Innovation Survey (2018), the top 1,000 R&D intensive companies spend £500bn each year in R&D. If the UK therefore was to increase its share of this by just 1% each year that would return an additional £5bn to the UK economy.

Members of the Taskforce reflected on the competitiveness of the UK R&D base to compete globally to attract more foreign direct investment in R&D. In some areas the UK is incredibly strong, and therefore, attractive to foreign direct investment but this is not uniform across all sectors.

To get to the heart of the issues, we need to understand the market opportunities for R&D, the skills and capabilities that R&D investors might look for, the strengths and weaknesses of the current R&D regulatory system whilst building on the many strengths that make the UK a good place to invest in and perform R&D.

2) The need to rebalance the R&D debate

The R&D Roadmap celebrates the UK’s world leading strengths in the R of R&D (against a basket of measures the UK punches above its weight in research globally).  But on the D of R&D it is not nearly as world leading.  There is a need, therefore, to rebalance the collective discussion about research and development to be focus more on strengthening the UK’s development capabilities.

There was a strong recognition that it is for businesses to lead the way in embracing, adopting and harnessing opportunities from R&D, and in particular the D, and for this to become a more mainstream activity for more businesses across the UK.

Currently business spend on R&D accounts for 54% of total UK R&D spend and realising the Government’s target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 would require businesses to spend £18 billion more on R&D annually. A new vision for R&D in the UK must take full account of the range of factors that affect the operating environment of R&D performing industries (including large corporates and start-ups) and their contribution to the impact agenda. This includes human, physical and financial capital, regulation, fiscal policy, infrastructure and trade policy.  Therefore, the Taskforce recommendations will comment not just on public policy and funding but on the wider financial system, and fiscal, structural and regulatory measures.

The Taskforce with meet again on 11 September 2020. Ahead of that meeting, there was agreement from the Taskforce to organise advisory groups to enable the Taskforce to develop effective and practical recommendations engaging a number of subject matter experts with deep experience in their fields. Against this background, the NCUB have set up four Advisory Groups to help shape the evidence and recommendations of the taskforce. The Advisory Groups will be covering the following areas:

  • Successes and learning from the crisis – This Advisory Group will capture early lessons to be learnt from collaborations established during this crisis. This includes understanding the components of the existing R&D system and practices that supported an effective and immediate response, as well as capturing opportunities to enhance future approaches.
  • Supporting the whole innovation system – This Advisory Group will review the effectiveness of current R&D relationships, including identifying gaps, opportunities and priorities that could attract greater private investment and capturing value from discovery research including the implications of “moonshots”.
  • Talent, capability and diversity – This Advisory Group will develop recommendations on how to draw talent from all backgrounds into the research and innovation system and to develop attractive, supportive and rewarding careers in research and innovation fields.
  • International attractiveness and competitiveness – This Advisory Group will consider the conditions that make the UK attractive now and in the future, as well as how the UK can better communicate its offer to strengthen and attract global partnerships.

To underpin the final report and aid the work of the Advisory Groups NCUB will also consider commissioning economic analyses to support the final insights and recommendations.

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