The world is changing fast, in exciting and challenging ways, and the UK needs a research and innovation system that is fit for the future: able to respond to environmental, social and economic change on a global scale. That is the challenge for UK Research and Innovation to deliver – just over one month old but building on the excellence of the research councils and Innovate UK.
We are in the midst of an extraordinary industrial revolution, powered by information technology. The implementation of data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems is growing exponentially, as are the risks of breaches to cybersecurity.
Demographic change brings ageing populations in many parts of the world and young populations in other parts. The pollution and waste from more than 7 billion humans on the planet is causing climate change and damage to biodiversity.
All of these changes bring huge opportunities as well as new challenges. What does all of this mean for how we educate future generations, for the future of work, for how we live sustainably and well for typically longer lives than previous generations? All of these changes are occurring against a background of shifting public debate, an explosion of social media and increasing populism and nationalism in many parts of the world.
Against this background the opportunities for research and innovation to discover and invent, to find solutions and grow businesses are extraordinary. They require interdisciplinary approaches and team working.
Recognising this, the government has put research and innovation at the heart of its industrial strategy, committed an additional £7 billion by 2021-22 and set out an ambition to increase total R&D expenditure to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027. This investment demonstrates the confidence government has in UK researchers, in our innovators, and in the success of UKRI. It rightly comes with high expectations and a shared sense of responsibility for delivery.
UKRI has every intention of meeting these high expectations. We want to ensure that everyone in society benefits from the knowledge, innovation, talent and ideas generated from our funding. We need to ensure we have an agile system that responds effectively to important opportunities, that can foster collaboration on the global stage, and that can draw on the inspiration and insight of the most talented researchers and innovators.
Delivering this will take a collective effort and we must be open to new and ambitious ways of working. We will encourage innovation, remove barriers and continually strive for improvement. UKRI will build on the excellence of our individual councils but we must be much more than a confederation of the nine. We will work collaboratively with researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs to develop the most exciting ideas and new technologies and bring them to fruition. We will work closely with the UK’s exceptional charities and foundations, with our great universities, and with businesses from small to large.
We will hold equality, diversity and inclusion at our heart; growing and developing the widest possible talent pool. We will take risks to support excellent individuals and teams who are prepared to tackle tough problems.
We are in a fortunate position to be building UKRI at a time when government investment in R&D is at an all-time high and we have an obligation to ensure this additional money is invested wisely. We will do this by advising government on key strategic priorities, ensuring the UK system continues to be internationally competitive and that it remains financially sustainable. We will provide the right environment and incentives for universities, institutes, innovators and businesses to flourish and we will draw on the expertise of our communities and stakeholders in developing our infrastructure roadmap.
At a time when the importance and value of truth and expertise is being questioned by some communities around the world, UKRI will maintain and strengthen integrity and trust in our research system by ensuring the highest standards of openness. It has never been more important to engage the public in discussions about research and innovation, to maximise the benefits and minimise harms from new technologies with remarkable potentials. We will work hard to engage the public in the remarkable and inspiring work funded by UKRI and other funders. We will try to ensure that today’s discoveries and inventions ignite and excite new generations capable of tackling tomorrow’s questions.
From Swindon to Antarctica and from Beijing to the Boulby Mine, we are a global organisation and we will work to ensure the UK remains in the global vanguard of research and innovation. We will work closely with international partners and promote the UK as a world-class destination.
Research and innovation is core to the UK’s industrial strategy and is a core need for a world facing extraordinary demographic, environmental and technological changes.
UKRI’s strategic prospectus launches on 14 May.
Mark Walport is chief executive officer of UK Research and Innovation.