This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group.
The immediate challenge for the new Prime Minister will rightly be the cost-of-living crisis, closely followed by the related – and looming – energy crisis. But the new PM mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture: the need to deliver a more resilient and sustainable economy – one that can weather the storm of crises still to come, including climate change and the ageing population.
That’s a big set of problems to solve but the innovative thinking and expertise being nurtured and harnessed in our university and research sectors can help with both.
Higher education generates more than £20 billion in export earnings every year – about the same value as UK car exports – yet productivity gains delivered by universities are often overlooked. Previous analysis valued these gains at over £34 billion a year just from the Russell Group’s own 24 universities – it will be more than double that for the sector.
Close links between universities and businesses are the catalysts for delivering such high returns. These partnerships drive ground-breaking discovery research and innovation, stimulate the pipeline of people and ideas for the future, and deliver economic prosperity. Last year, Russell Group university spin-outs created 33,000 jobs and brought £4.9 billion of investment to towns and cities across the country.
The UK economy is dominated by the service sectors, with advanced manufacturing and other areas of industry and agriculture also making critical contributions. So, while new infrastructure is being tunnelled under London and there are interesting plans to mine lithium in Cornwall, by and large the UK cannot rely on digging its way to post-Brexit post-pandemic success.
Instead, we need to invest in areas in which the UK is rich: ideas and talent. But we need to do so in a strategic and sustainable way rather than turning the investment tap on and off.
For example, Onward has proposed stimulating demand for heat pumps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Increased demand can create new manufacturing, installation and service infrastructure, with all the associated economic benefits.
Business investment in new facilities, training and skills is one part of the equation to make this a reality. The other is investment in research to design more efficient systems that are more affordable for the average household – which would generate valuable UK exports.
Just last month, the University of Glasgow announced the development of a more efficient heat pump that could cut rising household bills. Innovations like this are rarely delivered in the timeframe of one parliament though, so there must be political will to focus on the long-term gains and stay the course.
Indeed, we saw the direct benefits of long-term research at the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which enabled the rapid development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, not only saving one million lives but also facilitating our exit from lockdown. This wouldn’t have been possible without decades of prior investment in discovery research along with the talented individuals and modern facilities to turn ideas into a viable vaccine.
The strength and depth of our research sector means the UK excels across social science, humanities as well as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Innovations in these fields will drive Britain’s success in growth areas like the creative and service industries.
By bringing together and applying discovery research in science, technology, design and social science thinking, universities – and their partners in business, the NHS and charities – can tackle grand challenges from all angles, including moving to net zero, preparing for future pandemics and dealing with the problems of an ageing society.But to achieve this, research and development funding will be critical. Previous commitments are welcome, but if our ambition is to deliver solutions for the nation’s immediate and long-term challenges, maintaining – even increasing – investment must be a priority. Let’s hope the new PM will stay the course so we can all reap the benefits.