Government needs to “significantly increase” research and innovation funding beyond London, Oxford and Cambridge

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez September 12, 2019
Summary:
A report released this week by MPs has also urged BEIS and UKRI to publish their roadmaps for the increase in R&D funding.

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The government’s 2017 Industrial Strategy commitment to increase research and development funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 - up from 1.69% in recent years - has been welcomed by MPs on the influential Science and Technology Committee. However, they’ve also urged that a significant increase in funding be allocated to regions outside the UK’s ‘golden triangle’ of R&D - the regions between London, Oxford and Cambridge - in an attempt to stimulate activity elsewhere. 

In a report out this week, the Committee also urged that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) publish their roadmaps setting out plans to achieve the 2.4% of GDP target as soon as possible, and no later than the end of 2019. 

Comparing internationally, the UK’s 1.69% R&D spend in 2017 i similar to that of Canada and Norway. However, it is lower than France (2.3%) and Germany (2.9%), and well behind table leaders South Korea and Israel (both 4.2%). 

MPs on the Committee said that the government departments responsible for R&D spend should show an integrated approach in their roadmaps that “suitably reflects the strengths and prospects of the UK economy” and that these plans should be developed beyond 2027 to ensure travel towards a longer term target of 3% of GDP. 

Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

Research and development spending brings huge economic and social benefits to us all. So, although we welcome the Government’s commitment to substantially increase research and development funding to 2.4% by 2027, a plan is now needed on how this target will be achieved. We are already behind international competitors such as Germany and France, and we can’t fall further behind.

We have advised the Government to publish its ‘roadmaps’ on how it hopes to meet the 2.4% target no later than the end of this year. I hope to see plans that reach beyond 2027 and clearly reflect how integration between UKRI and BEIS will strengthen and harness the benefits of research spending for society.

While UK research is world-leading and we have many world-leading universities and research institutions, excellence and funding are concentrated in a small number of institutions, in a few regions of the UK. The Government’s Strength in Places Fund is a key tool in spreading excellence to different regions. However, it is too modest to drive any significant rebalancing of investment. That’s why we’ve called for it to be substantially increased.

The Committee said that the government should be aiming to build further research excellence outside of the existing South East of England ‘golden triangle’. It said that whilst additional regional funding should not be to the detriment of Oxford, Cambridge and London, in order to contribute to the 2.4% R&D target, regional strengths will need to be harnessed and cultivated. 

The main mechanism for achieving regional growth is through the Strength in Places Fund (SIPF). The Committee said that SIPF is still in its infancy and that the rationale and goals remain “somewhat opaque”. It recommends that UKRI and BEIS “substantially increase” the size of the SIPF and create new centres of excellence in regions beyond the South East. 

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also welcomed the report. Felicity Burch, CBI Director of Innovation & Digital, said:

Companies echo the Committee’s call for an ambitious plan to reach the 2.4% R&D target by 2027. If Government gets its plans right – expected in the autumn – this could change the game for UK innovation.

The Committee’s recognition that innovation support must be more accessible and easier to navigate is something the CBI has long been calling for. Change will be critical if the UK is to remain the home of ground-breaking discoveries and inventions.

Other recommendations

MPs on the Committee said that the government also needs to make it as easy as possible for businesses to locate and access opportunities to benefit from the increase in R&D investment and should create a central linking point or web portal to facilitate this. It added that the creation of UKRI represents an opportunity for it to operate as a ‘steward of the system’ and that future roadmaps should include detail on UKRI’s role in coordinating this investment. 

However, the report adds that UKRI’s focus appears too strongly to follow traditional metrics, measuring outputs such as publications and patents, which should only form one element of evaluation. The Committee said that research on research is an increasingly important field and it recommends that UKRI consider a dedicated approach to supporting it. 

In addition, the report suggests that UKRI should attempt to analyse the benefit gained by its creation by capturing data across research councils and through cross-cutting funds. It recommends a “big data focus for evaluation” and should publish a plan for creating and investing in new data sources and analysis techniques beyond traditional measures for patents and publications.