This HEPI Blog was kindly written by Stephanie Smith, Deputy Director of Policy at the Russell Group.
Plans to look again at the UK’s Integrated Review – the document setting the tone for our foreign policy and defence priorities – were announced during the short-lived premiership of Liz Truss. Picked up by the current Prime Minister, the refreshed framework for the UK, published in early April 2023, will have implications for universities and the wider Research and Development (R&D) sector that will last far longer than Liz Truss did in No. 10.
The original Integrated Review of 2021 put research and innovation at the centre of the country’s strategy for statecraft – the way in which nations secure their economic and political standing in an increasingly competitive world. Two years on, in the face of war in Europe and new geopolitical tensions, science remains high on the agenda in the 2023 update.
For the UK to prosper, government will focus on areas of strategic advantage in R&D, namely:
- quantum technologies;
- future telecommunications; and
- engineering biology.
This means the activity of our research-intensive universities will remain of key interest to decision makers. As a recent HEPI report made clear, there are significant opportunities here for these research areas to drive major increases in inward investment to the UK.
In many respects the biggest changes resulting from the Integrated Review 2023 will not be what we research – Russell Group universities are already leaders in fields like Quantum and AI. The biggest differences will be felt in how we research and who we partner with to deliver progress in strategically important areas.
The rise of China and other countries whose values conflict with our own as research powers presents universities with significant questions. As the Integrated Review points out, collaborations with these countries is necessary for global stability and diplomacy. In many areas too, delivering on ambitions to gain strategic advantage through technology will require us to work with, and learn from, individuals and teams based in states where secure engagement is challenging.
The refresh of the Integrated Review was launched in the context of increasing concern over China’s place in the international order, and calls from some to suspend research partnerships. Cutting all ties is one way to address risks but the knock-on effect on our ability to deliver R&D advances that could shift the dial on global challenges like climate change would be significant. A “scorched earth” approach to China and other states could be catastrophic in several key sectors.
The new Integrated Review steps back from absolutist positions here and is right to say it is important to leave room for ‘open, constructive, and predictable relations’ with states like China. Secure research collaboration can be part of a mature framework for diplomacy, with finding areas of common ground key for global stability. What this does not mean, however, is ignoring threats and pressing ahead regardless when new partnerships are on the table.
That is not the approach universities take now, supported by legislation, regulation, and extensive engagement with Research Collaboration Advice Team (RCAT) and other government agencies who help ensure the sector goes into projects with our eyes open.
We’ve seen big progress since 2019 in terms of the closeness of the working relationship between universities, technical agencies, and others to raise awareness of risks within research. This has helped transform the way universities assess threats and work with academics to mitigate them.
It’s right that the government keeps these engagement structures under review and makes changes when needed. The plan to relaunch the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) as the National Protective Security Authority (NPSA) with a new, wider mandate should be seen in this light. The acid test for the refreshed and expanded agency will be whether we can quickly build the ongoing dialogue on security issues that is the best way to protect the UK. This will ensure not only that universities are aware of risks, but also that hostile interventions can be reported back quickly to government to ensure safeguards are updated quickly in response to emerging threats.
The early signs are promising, with the NPSA setting out an intention to work directly with more sectors and businesses who did not routinely engage with CPNI, including start-ups. What we will also need to see are steps taken to ensure institutional reforms work seamlessly with successful initiatives such as RCAT that have helped ensure universities receive clear, consistent, and timely security advice when considering new international research partnerships.
The review of legislation and other provisions designed to protect our academic sector which the Integrated Review proposes might help here. It’s crucial this analysis does not focus exclusively on where legislation and regulation needs to be ratcheted up – we also need to consider where the complex network of existing regulations, export controls and security legislation might be blocking secure partnerships.
Resourcing of bodies like the Counter Proliferation and Arms Control Centre (CPACC) which help increase the resilience of both universities and R&D is also going to be crucial and indications that government is set to ramp up investment here is welcome.
Ultimately, we want the maximum number of secure research breakthroughs for the UK with a minimum of red tape. With current legislation and regulations meaning some projects must be reported through multiple schemes administered by different government departments, there may be opportunities to simplify processes and ensure universities and officials alike have more time to focus scrutiny on genuinely high-risk activities.
We’d hope the review of academic protections also recognises the best defence for the UK is not always new legislation, which rapidly evolving threats can quickly render obsolete. Striking the correct balance between laws, guidance and boosting security capacity within universities requires a joined-up approach across government. We will hope to see the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) take a lead here and work with the Home Office, the Department for Education, and other departments to get this right. Universities will also look to boost their internal capacity to respond quickly to emerging threats through the new £1 billion Integrated Security Fund.
Integrated Review 2023 sets the frame for the way our universities and research teams will work in years to come. If we want a robust security regime for UK R&D that is low burden and agile enough to respond to changing risks, then it’s critical the higher education works hand in glove with government to get implementation of the measures it proposes right.