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UK research funding less geographically concentrated than key competitors including US and Germany

  • 13 May 2021

The UK’s research comparators – including the US and Germany – have greater geographical concentration of research funding, according to a new report.

Regional policy and R&D: evidence, experiments and expectations, which is published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute, finds that geographic concentration of Research and Development (R&D) investment is a widespread characteristic of research globally and is not unique to the UK. 

The three authors from University College London (UCL) find that UK and EU regions with the highest overall R&D spend contain the greatest variation in levels of spending and are often home to sub-regions with low funding levels; variations in funding levels within regions were often found to be greater than between regions.

The report highlights that there is no single picture of the distribution of research funding, with the pattern depending on the metric used.

Recognising that the levelling up agenda is not the first attempt to stimulate regional investment and address regional inequalities in the UK, the authors argue that future regional initiatives must be built on firmer foundations – with much wider recognition of the complex picture of UK research funding among policymakers.

Co-author Grace Gottlieb, Head of Research Policy (UCL Office of the Vice-Provost for Research, Innovation and Global Engagement), said:

The picture of R&D activity across the UK and internationally is more complex than it may seem at first glance. This report challenges received wisdom on funding patterns and resulting policy; we hope it proves useful in shedding light on some of these nuances and informs guiding principles for regional R&D initiatives going forward. In particular, improving the sustainability of research funding will be key to ensuring smaller institutions can take on more research grants without incurring major funding deficits.

Report co-author Professor Graeme Reid, Chair of Science and Research Policy at UCL, said:

Previous attempts to use R&D for regional development have had mixed success. Too many of these initiatives began with high hopes and big ambitions – but were then cut short before they had time to deliver results.

The authors call for greater clarity on the purpose of regional R&D investment and stronger leadership from civic authorities at regional levels. Suggesting that regionally driven R&D initiatives could help to better address the needs of local communities, they also propose a greater focus on collaboration between universities within and across regions. 

In order to help tackle regional inequalities, the report argues for greater focus on how to maximise the impact of research that is carried out across the UK. The authors suggest that while research investment is easy to measure, it is a poor proxy for the impacts of R&D on economies and societies at regional and local levels. They emphasise that translating funding into regional impact will depend on the creation of impact-focussed objectives and engagement with strong civic partners.

Co-author Sarah Chaytor, Director of Research Strategy & Policy (UCL Office of the Vice-Provost for Research, Innovation and Global Engagement), added: 

The UK already has areas of considerable research strength across the country, but more ambition is needed on how to better leverage and amplify them. Stimulating greater collaboration between universities within and across regions, including those with very different characteristics, could enhance the impact of research within regions. This also requires recognising the vital role of local leadership in strengthening regional and national R&D.

The report makes six recommendations to develop more resilient regional R&D initiatives.

  1. Set out measurable objectives: A clear vision and regional metrics for success could advance the regional R&D agenda.
  2. Focus on impact: Regional metrics should focus on the impact of research, rather than the level of investment.
  3. Build greater strengths through partnerships: Foster inter-regional collaborations to strengthen the impact of research.
  4. Create strong civic partners at regional and local levels: Enable civic authorities to lead regional R&D initiatives within a national framework.
  5. Integrate regional, national and global interests: Strong relationships between national and regional R&D are essential.
  6. Ensure financial sustainability for university research: Improving the sustainability of funding would enable stronger regional R&D.

Note to Editors

HEPI was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate, as well as through our own events. HEPI is a company limited by guarantee and a registered charity.

2 comments

  1. albert wright says:

    A fascinating subject with lots of data.

    A clearer understanding of the objectives and targets of Regional Investment would help.

    Great to see point 2: Focus on impact: Regional metrics should focus on the impact of research, rather than the level of investment.

    However, data on this seems poor.

    This does not help Governments decide the best place and ways to get the best return on investment.

    When it comes to measuring successful outcomes, the challenge is even greater. What is the right time scale, what is the right geographic extent, what about negative outputs such as pollution?

    Does the invention of the wheel get top billing for best return in the world over time or will solar power be the true winner over the next century?

  2. Stimulating and thoughtful report. In my mind it is not solely about financial investment, but around building innovation ecosystems in the regions. Each region should have something unique to offer whether that be in sector expertise, manufacturing capability for tech transfer i.e. a USP that is of value on the national/global stage. That way rather than diluting investment each region has specific and unique capabilities to enable it to flourish.

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