The Levelling Up White Paper was published last Wednesday. Typically, White Papers precede legislation. This document sets out the Government’s proposed approach to its longstanding pledge to tackle regional inequality.

It has had a mixed reaction. Positive responses focused on the depth and quality of analysis while critical feedback noted a lack of ambition and its patchwork policy recommendations. NCUB’s response to the White Paper welcomed the importance given to research and innovation and the announcement of three ‘Innovation Accelerators’. This blog considers the content of the White Paper and its potential implications for the UK’s research and innovation system.

The White Paper is over three hundred pages. A significant amount of this is analysis that explores the causes and consequences of the UK’s enduring geographical disparities. The first five pages take a roundabout “if you liked Sapiens” approach to saying that fortunes change over time and that post-industrial decline is not unique to the UK. After this there is less to be glib about as the document sets out detailed analysis of a range of economic, social and health factors within, as well as between, regions of the UK, effectively illustrating the scale and complexity of the challenge the White Paper is trying to tackle and the human costs of failure.

The second chapter of the Levelling Up White Paper follows this examination with a review of local growth policy. It notes five key shortcomings including a lack of ‘local empowerment’[1]. The lack of solipsism is commendable and sets the context for ‘a new policy regime’, which includes twelve medium-term targets or missions. Among the twelve missions one is focused on research and development (R&D), and another is focused on skills. The R&D mission is repeated below in full:

‘By 2030, domestic public investment in R&D outside the Greater Southeast will increase by at least 40%, and over the Spending Review period by at least one third. This additional government funding will seek to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to stimulate innovation and productivity growth.’

Prior to the White Paper’s release, there was uncertainty about what profile it would give to R&D. Ultimately, its prominence makes sense given the increased funding announced in the 2021 Autumn Budget and the critical role of innovation in the 2021 Plan for Growth. Nonetheless, it is a welcome recognition of the contribution that universities and businesses make across the UK, some of which are highlighted in the White Paper in an illustrative map of the UK’s sectoral clusters and strengths.

Chapter three is focused on delivery. The White Paper’s Policy Programme has been criticised for a “we’re doing that already” approach. In the context of the R&D, this seems less disingenuous. The settlement for R&D in 2021 was significant and due in part to coherent lobbying effort across the sector. At the core of this lobbying effort was a message that, as responses to the pandemic demonstrated, public R&D investment facilitates collaboration between universities and business, leverages private investment, creates innovation, and drives growth. The White Paper accepts this. It highlights the increased overall public spend and sets out and a number of specific interventions that build geography into decision-making, including a new organisational objective for UKRI. This section also includes detail and rationale for the three Innovation Accelerators in Glasgow, Manchester and the West Midlands.

NCUB welcomed the announcement of the three Accelerators. NCUB’s 2020 Taskforce[2] recommended the creation of Innovation Collaboration Zones. These were intended to take advantage of direct and indirect incentives to support localised growth of clusters of academia and industry. The suggested incentives included tangible measures such as deregulation of land use. The White Paper notes that the Accelerators, ‘will receive bespoke support from the UK Government, led by BEIS in partnership with other departments and their regional teams.’ Effective interdepartmental collaboration will be crucial if these Accelerators are to have a significant impact.

Elsewhere, the White Paper describes research investment by Government departments outside the Greater Southeast, including through public sector research establishments (PSREs). Without prejudging the outcome of the current Nurse review, this direction appears consistent with the ambition set out in the 2019 Government Science Capability Review[3] for PSREs to take an increased role. More broadly the role of R&D in the Levelling Up White Paper appears consistent with prior policy rather than a radical departure. As others have noted, it is likely that, in the context of R&D at least, the interventions described in White Paper may bring relative improvements and contribute to narrowing some gaps in regional performance. This is positive, more may be required.