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Universities, Research, Development and Innovation and the Levelling Up White Paper

  • 10 February 2022
  • By Giles Carden

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Giles Carden, Chief of Staff at Lancaster University.

The Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper was finally launched on 2 February 2022. It sets out a complete ‘system change’ of government working, with the aim of levelling up the UK.

Central to the new plan for making and implementing policy are 12 quantifiable national missions which are to be achieved by 2030. These missions are proposed to be cross-governmental and cross-societal in their efforts. Universities will have an important role to play in a number of the missions.

Without a doubt, the most striking headline for universities is Mission 2: 

By 2030, domestic public investment in Research & Development outside the Greater South East will increase by at least 40% and at least one third over the Spending Review period, with that additional government funding seeking to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to stimulate innovation and productivity growth.

Neil O’Brien MP, Levelling Up Minister, Chair of the Number 10 Policy Board and co-founder of the centre-right thinktank, Onward, has long been a proponent of the policy to redistribute research funds geographically. In February 2021, Onward published a paper entitled Levelling Up Innovation. A key recommendation of the report was to devote the increase in public R&D investment through the 2.4 per cent of GDP target to projects outside the ‘Golden Triangle’.

This would amount to an annual £9 billion boost to R&D funding for lagging regions by 2027, and, according to the Government’s own modelling, could raise UK productivity by 3 to 4 per cent by 2027 and 8 to 12 per cent by 2040, relative to the current distribution.

The policy may also be a legacy of the Dominic Cummings era and is underpinned by the policy endeavours of Professor Richard Jones of the University of Manchester. Jones, who is known to have advised Number 10, along with Tom Forth, published an interesting, analytical report with the innovation foundation NESTA in 2020 entitled The Missing £4 Billion. The report commented on the regional disparities in R&D spending and outlined that London and its sub-regions of Oxford and Cambridge account for 46 per cent of total public and charitable R&D spending.

In contrast, North-East England, Yorkshire and the Humber, Wales and Northern Ireland fare poorly, with low levels of innovation spending in absolute terms both by public and private funders. 

This new policy to redistribute R&D funding geographically raises a series of questions:

  1. How does one define the ‘Greater South East’? My brief research suggests the implied geographic area includes a number of great universities in the home counties and just beyond, not just those in the ‘Golden Triangle’. However, it is worth noting in the Mission and Metrics Technical Annex that a specific statement about National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funding: ‘In addition, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) will increase National Institute for Health Research investment outside London, Oxford and Cambridge’.
  2. How will the policy impact the longstanding aim of successive governments to fund research excellence wherever it is found? 
  3. It is clear the policy will apply to UK Research and Innovation and National Institute for Health Research, but will it also apply to Advanced Research and Invention Agency and Research England (Quality Related research) funding sources? 
  4. How will the new regional distribution funding model work in practice? 
  5. Will major chartable funding bodies, such as the Wellcome and Leverhulme Trusts, be persuaded to align with the Government’s plans?

For universities outside the Greater South East, the policy presents an opportunity to develop key areas of activity further. Lancaster University has recently forged a strategic relationship with the Ministry of Defence’s National Cyber Force (NCF), the latter is referenced in the White Paper. NCF will be based in Samlesbury, South Ribble, Lancashire, and serves as an example where policy alignment could produce real levelling-up benefits. The choice of its location falls under the ‘Spreading Opportunities and Improving Public Services’ pillar of the White Paper’s Policy Programme. It is hoped that R&D investment will follow, thereby aligning to Mission 2 of the White Paper.

Another flagship policy in the White Paper is the launch of three pilot Innovation Accelerators in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow City-Region. This initiative will test whether strong local governance, leadership and the ability to leverage private investment is successful in driving innovation in these regions. If the three-year pilot is successful, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will consider rolling it out further. 

Further policy developments are also afoot. The independent review of the UK Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Organisational Landscape, led by Sir Paul Nurse, is considering the imbalances in the current mix of RDI-performing organisations across the UK. This report will provide a further important opportunity to deliver recommendations on how Mission 2 from the White Paper will be implemented in practice. The Review’s recommendations are due in the spring of this year.

The new R&D investment strategy announced in the White Paper is undoubtedly good news for universities outside the Greater South East. But universities within the Greater South East are likely to be concerned that the levelling up-driven policy will shift investment away from their world-class centres of excellence, arguing that this will impact the UK’s ability to be a science superpower. How will this potential tension play out in the long term? Only time will tell.

On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the National Union of Students. Read HEPI’s history of the NUS here.

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  1. albert wright says:

    We need to be very careful about ensuring levelling up spending in new locations outside the South East delivers at least as good a return on investment that has come from what has been spent on R & D in the past in the South.

    This will be very difficult because the data we have on how effective past investment has been is not well identified and collated. How have we measured past success?

    We need to be more commercial and business like in how we approach this issue. Personallly, I think it is madness to measure the number of citations in academic journals following publication of research results as a sign of “excellence”.

    What I would like to see is the wealth created from the research, the number of jobs that have been filled, the weight and value of what has been produced, the £ value of the legacy created.

    If we look at the Covid issue by way of example – the lives saved from developing the right vaccines to reduce the negative effects of the disease were immense. What was the R & D investment that resulted in the breakthroughs via Oxford, Cambridge and London Universities that made this possible?

    Was it the people, the individuals involved and is what we need to do now simply to move them to Sunderland and Liverpool?

  2. Giles Carden says:

    Albert, many thanks for your comments on my blog. I agree with your point about ROI. The metrics proposed to measure progress in delivering Mission 2 in the white paper seem to be more input than output focussed. This is something the Government will need to address. I hear from my contacts there is much more policy detail to come as we lead up to the next Budget.

  3. Giles Carden says:

    Albert, many thanks for your comments on my blog. I agree with your point about ROI. The metrics proposed to measure progress in delivering Mission 2 in the white paper seem to be more input than output focused. This is something the Government will need to address. I hear from my contacts there is much more policy detail to come as we lead up to the next Budget.

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