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The regional way forward for R&D

  • 29 June 2020
  • By Tom Calver & Malcolm Press

This blog was kindly contributed by Tom Calver and Professor Malcolm Press, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The recent Nesta paper from Tom Forth and Richard Jones is an excellent and accessible summary of the regional imbalances in Research & Development (R&D) funding. Their analysis of the situation should capture the imagination of the whole R&D community. The recommendations that research funders should be doing more to address regional imbalances could and should be followed now, and their suggestion of devolved research monies is sensible. We have always struggled to square quality with geography, but by focusing on regional strengths and priorities, this need not be the case.

However, one part of their proposed solution takes us in a direction that some would challenge: new science and technology institutions. Their analysis of R&D practices overseas appears to have created an unfortunate case of wanting to start afresh, irrespective of the infrastructure and capacity that we already have.

Forth and Jones identify that a greater proportion of the UK’s public R&D is carried out at universities than it is in other countries, so they suggest new institutions, despite noting that new institutions create overheads that consume research funding. A key justification is that this investment will unlock private sector R&D, despite their observation that the link between public and private R&D investment is typically weaker in the UK than it is elsewhere.

Furthermore, in the post-Covid economy, £4 billion may be too big an ask. Yet, wholly new institutions demand big budgets, as can be readily seen from the expenditure of the higher education sector on buildings.

An alternative approach is to use the UK’s existing R&D infrastructure as a launch pad, allowing more money to flow to R&D activities. This would mean doing more with universities, which have existing research governance processes, developed support functions, and active networks of civic and academic partnerships. While we agree that the UK needs to develop some R&D specialisms in some regions, by placing these with existing centres, less money is absorbed by overheads and more can go to recruiting and equipping researchers. These new teams would plug into existing networks to interact with regional businesses and public sector organisations. For example, in Manchester, our Hydrogen Fuel Cell Innovation Centre is focused on delivering the benefits of this technology to local business, while supporting the City’s zero carbon target. Using what exists already is a quicker route to more R&D and more impact.

This emphatically does not mean simply throwing extra money at existing centres and universities. New money must be linked to regionally-relevant outcomes. Contracts can link funding to deliverables, especially in translational activity and activating private sector investment.

Allied to this would be devolved research funding, as proposed in ‘The Missing £4 Billion’. However, regional or sub-regional research funders should have priorities that are distinct from those of existing research councils. These should be set regionally, but would likely include more focus on translational activity, or on supporting regional policy development and delivery. These bodies should also be free to fund in any discipline, including social sciences and humanities, as appropriate to support regional plans. Not all economic growth will come from science and technology. In our own city-region, arts and humanities underpin a vibrant and successful creative sector, while social science and humanities research play their parts in shaping and delivering the levelling-up agenda that addresses social inequalities.

The imbalance in R&D funding is clear, as is the need for concerted and swift action to address it. Partly, that will come from devolved budgets, partly from more regionally-aware research council behaviour. It will not come from expensive new stand-alone institutes. Existing facilities, academic and business, have the established roots that can support rapid growth.

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