Yesterday, the Prime Minister set out a clear ambition to position the UK as a global science superpower. Today, the much anticipated R&D roadmap was published to start a “big conversation” on how this can be achieved.

The roadmap is a very welcome and collaborative step towards shaping a national R&D plan and priorities in the upcoming comprehensive spending review. It clearly expresses the vital role that research and innovation plays in driving economic growth and recovery, as well as making the UK greener, safer and healthier. The Government is taking a collaborative approach to developing its approach to research and innovation, and effective input from universities and businesses will be critical to its success.

Stakeholders are invited to join the conversation through a survey that launched today and will run until 12 August 2020. Responses are invited ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review and development of the Government’s R&D plan. The Roadmap sets a clear framework for the debate, making the government’s priorities and drivers on research and innovation clear.

We summarise some of the key elements of the roadmap affecting collaboration:

  • 1) R&D investment
    The government restates its commitment to increasing investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and its recognition of the important role that boosting public funding will play. At a time of economic turbulence, this continued commitment to public R&D funding is critical. Public funding for R&D will increase to £22 billion per year by 2024-25, this follows a welcome 19% cash-terms increase in the budget of BEIS and a 20% increase in funding for UK Research and Innovation in 2020/21.

Although not new, the roadmap reiterates the Government’s intention to invest at least £800 million into setting up the much-anticipated Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), announced for the first time in December 2019 in the Queen’s speech.

  • 2) Innovation
    An initial observation on the Roadmap is the increased focused on innovation (rather than just on science and research). Within the report, there is a clear ambition to support innovative companies of all sizes and across all sectors. The language used throughout this section points towards ‘freeing up’ researchers to ‘pursue ideas’, take ‘bigger bets’ and ‘embed horizon-scanning’ on a small number of ambitious programmes. Clearly there is an ambition for the UK to do more blue skies research and to be prepared to take risks in order to garner success. Part of this drive is to pursue solving the most critical challenges facing the world including tackling and identifying ‘moonshots’. Ahead of the Spending review in the Autumn, the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology will be tasked with identifying and reviewing ‘moonshots’, building on existing research and identifying opportunities.

The roadmap announces the establishment of a new Innovation Expert Group to help shape UK innovation policy, decide on priority areas of opportunity and take early action to boost innovation.

  • 3) Entrepreneurs and start-ups
    The Roadmap makes clear that developing an open and ambitious innovation system includes supporting entrepreneurs and start-ups in order to increase access to finance to enable them to scale up. The Roadmap asks especially for “views on how to unleash the potential of the UK’s scale-ups”.
  • 4) Place
    The roadmap strongly reinforces the importance of the place agenda with an announcement to set up an ministerial R&D Place Advisory Group to “explore how we can significantly expand the regional presence of our national R&D funders, improving their local footprint, and will look at opportunities to deepen the relationships between national bodies, devolved bodies, and local and regional areas”.

The emphasis on place and levelling up is hardly surprising given the Prime Minister’s emphasis on ‘doubling down to level up’ yesterday. Specifically, the roadmap welcomes initiatives such as the Strength in Places Fund (awards announced last week) in order to take greater account of place in the R&D decision-making process.

  • 5) Attracting and Retaining Talent
    Creating an attractive research culture, nurturing and retaining diverse talent all form a major part of the roadmap- including the Government’s intention to set up a new cross-departmental Office for Talent to look at the ways in which we attract, retain and nurture existing R&D professionals. A new R&D People and Culture strategy will complement this work to help increase the attractiveness and sustainability of research careers and raise the recognition and reward for research technical professionals, addressing skills gaps and retention challenges.

The report recognises and acknowledges where the UK has more work to do in terms of dismantling barriers to BAME managers, directors and senior officials in HE and addressing issues such as bullying and harassment, lower salaries and an overdependence on competing for short-term funding, not just for researchers, but for technicians, graduates, early career researchers and those entering researcher after a break.

Immigration routes will be revised to include new rules for international students who complete a PhD from Summer 2021 to stay in the UK for 3 years after study to live and work.

  • 6) Infrastructure
    The Government’s intention to invest in long-term, flexible investment into infrastructure and Institutions is supported by the announcement to bring forward £300 million in funding to upgrade scientific infrastructure across the UK through the government’s World Class Labs funding scheme. This funding will enable research institutes and universities to make sure UK researchers have access to better lab equipment, digital resources, and to improve and maintain current research facilities.

The roadmap acknowledges the critical role that universities play in the research and innovation ecosystem and ensuring the sustainability of research active- universities will be important. On Saturday, the Government announced a £280 million stabilisation package targeting research-active universities to continue their cutting-edge work during the coronavirus pandemic, by covering the costs of equipment and salaries. A new research funding scheme also opens this Autumn to cover up to 80% of a university’s income losses from a decline in international students. Looking ahead to the spending review, the roadmap announces the Government’s intention to consider the sustainability of research so that researchers and businesses can make long-term ambitious plans.

  • 7) Global investment and collaboration
    Today’s roadmap included the Government’s intention to develop a new funding offer for collaboration with other world leading R&I nations, researchers and innovators while maintaining close and friendly collaborative relationships with European partners. If the UK fails to associate with Horizon Europe, the government will “meet any funding shortfalls and put in place alternative schemes”, it says.
  • 8) Minimising Bureaucracy
    Developing an innovation system that is open and able to harness existing talent and excellence is a theme that runs throughout the Roadmap. The Government will launch a review of ‘research bureaucracy’ to free up and support the best researchers to focus on ground-breaking research.

Looking Ahead

The new R&D roadmap is an exciting, ambitious and timely vision of a better future driven by research and innovation. The fact that this roadmap is not a plan and more of a consultation provides a real opportunity for universities, businesses and others to help shape practical and valuable policy change.
NCUB will be engaging closely with its members to ensure university- business collaboration forms a major part of how we move towards the ambitious 2.4 per cent target.