This insight was first published as part of NCUB’s State of the Relationship 2021 Report. Read the report in full here.

A few weeks ago, the Chancellor announced he was increasing the amount the government spends on R&D to £20 billion per year by 2024-25. Public investment in research and development generates excellent returns, leveraging additional business and overseas investment – it drives economic growth, boosts productivity, leads to high value jobs and is key to the UK’s future prosperity.

This requires talented people – lots of them – inspired to dedicate their careers to research and innovation in the UK, with a system and a supportive, welcoming ethos that allows people to envisage and enjoy flexible, dynamic careers. We have a vibrant research and innovation sector already, so building on this can cement the UK’s position as a leading research nation that can drive a high-skill, research and innovation-led recovery.

The publication of the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy in July 2021, following from its conception a year before in the R&D Roadmap, is therefore an essential part of the new policy landscape. The People and Culture Strategy sets out for the first time the government’s plan to ensure that research and innovation careers are as attractive as they can be.

There are challenges to address: people might grapple with unclear pathways, barriers and costs that hinder cross-sector, -organisation or international mobility, and variable leadership quality. Some parts of the research and innovation system can exhibit unhealthy cultures, including evidence of bullying, harassment, and discrimination. We will not achieve the aspirations in the strategies unless these weaknesses are tackled. This recognition, set out by the government, is a positive step.

Change requires whole sector collaboration. It is essential to appreciate that these areas are connected and inter-dependent, so the People and Culture Strategy is a call to action for us all in the research and innovation system to work together, build upon and celebrate things that are going well, learn from, and change things that aren’t and help contribute to lasting change. UKRI already already has an ambitious portfolio of work that we look to strengthen and mature, and a role to play in helping convene the right groups of experts to support the delivery of the strategy. The future we want will only be secured with ownership of the challenges and solutions from all parts of the sector.

We need to plan, attract and prepare for enough people to meet growing demand for research and innovation. UKRI will ensure that we have a competitive offer for researchers, including how to address the precarity that is a severe disincentive for many, especially at the early stages of a research career. We can enable more people, at any career stage, to move flexibly between different roles or sectors and to understand the opportunity in the whole careers landscape, not just a narrow, linear part of it.

Continuing to incentivise and enable university and private sector collaboration and co-design of training and development is important here. Fostering a positive, inclusive and respectful culture that supports richer, more productive and sustainable ways of working is inarguably the right thing to do, and there are well-established business reasons for doing so: diverse workforces and teams are more productive and creative and the UK, with its remarkable research and innovation history, foundation and future, can lead the way.