HE and Research Bill: changes must respect national differences

Kirsty Williams and Julie James implore ministers to look beyond the Golden Triangle

January 9, 2017
Flags of United Kingdom and England, Houses of Parliament

The UK chancellor of the exchequer’s promise of an additional £2 billion for research and development funding last year was most welcome.

However, this investment raises significant questions. How will the interests of the different nations of the UK be considered when decisions are made about what to fund? And how can we make sure that all parts of the UK share in the economic benefits that flow from this investment?

We in Wales are concerned that mistakes from the past will be made once again, with research strengths and business potential of regions within the UK not being taken into account. 

Consideration of the Higher Education and Research Bill in the House of Lords this week provides an opportunity to amend proposals for the governance and operation of UK Research and  Innovation (UKRI), the new body overseeing research and innovation in the UK, to ensure that we have a more inclusive approach to research and innovation funding in the future.

We are calling for representation from each of the four UK nations on the board of UKRI. Only then can we truly have faith that this is a UK wide approach. We also believe that earmarked sums must be allocated for R&D projects in each UK nation. The particular R&D needs of businesses across the UK differ from those in England and these needs should not be drowned out by:

  • the clamour of lobbying in Whitehall
  • the design of project tenders by people from the Golden Triangle which favour researchers and businesses in the London mega-city region
  • an inadequate focus on  new sciences, technologies and businesses.

The activities of the aerospace, automotive, distillery, fintech insurance, healthcare, life sciences, genetics and genomics, livestock, nuclear power, oil and gas, precision medicine, steel and tidal power industries and research activities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are different from those in England and particularly from those in London and the South East.

These differences need to be supported so that they can become sources of international competitive advantage in the future. This must be one of our answers to the disconnect and displacement demonstrated in the EU referendum.

We must foster development in areas of lower economic growth through research which focuses on local strengths that can be exported, but not taken away. We need to exploit local advantages, whether they are accumulated skills in steel making, online insurance or aviation technologies.

It’s fair to say that higher education civil servants in Whitehall are given a near impossible task. The vast majority of the time you are working on issues that relate solely to England. But you are then expected to swap that one nation microscope for a UK-wide telescope on research policy and funding. The four governments of the UK need to work together on such issues, which underlines the need for UK-wide representation on UKRI.

It would support, rather than hinder, the work of those English civil servants as they go back and forth from microscope to telescope.

The recent Lords’ Select Committee Science and Technology report emphasised the need for the UK Government to actively seek to attract leading scientists and scientific installations from around the world to match existing investments in the Crick Institute in London and the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire (both inside the "Golden Triangle" of Oxford, London and Cambridge).

In Wales, this approach is an established feature of national level R&D policy. The Sêr Cymru (Welsh Stars) scheme uses Welsh Government funds and monies from the EU’s Co-fund scheme to attract internationally renowned academics.

Recent calls for a debate about R&D expenditure have emerged against the background of a growing consensus in the UK that we underinvest in this activity in comparison to other developed economies. Indeed, figures from the OECD suggest that R&D expenditure in the UK as a proportion of GDP lags behind the OECD average.

There is also an emerging consensus that government should provide leadership in R&D activity while working with industry, academics, entrepreneurs and private finance to create new business opportunities. The work of researchers like Henry Etzkowitz and Mariana Mazzucato has drawn attention to the role of the US Government in funding research and working with partners to create new products, processes and services which lead to new businesses and sustainable improved economic performance. 

These insights have subsequently been taken on by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through their Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme working with national and regional teams of policy makers, academics and business people from across the globe to work on projects designed to foster better alignment between university based research and entrepreneurial capabilities in existing and new firms.

The need for close local and national links between universities, business, financiers and policy makers is seen increasingly as pivotal if the difficult journey is going to be made from discovery, invention or innovation through to national or globally scalable business activity. It is not just the research that determines success it is the capability of policy makers and business people nearby to apply it in commercial settings that also matters.

The presumption in much of the debate in the UK to date that increased R&D expenditure should be driven by decisions at a UK level appears to be informed by sideways glances at investments in big science by federal departments and agencies in the US, including the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the National Science Federation.

These investments have helped US universities, along with the widespread use of the English language in the US, to achieve its pre-eminence in journal citation metrics and aerospace, defense and bio-science industries on the East and West coasts. However, these achievements have not spread to the former agricultural and manufacturing heartlands of the US mid-west and may have added to concerns about a lack of economic progress in these states.

Other measures of success which track business innovation and application and more inclusive forms of economic growth suggests that a more successful approach balances regional, national and federal investment in R&D (like in Finland and Switzerland). This funding also focuses on technology application and commercialisation, as well as pure and applied research. We would like to see this approach adopted by the UKRI, backed by national government representation on its board, to ensure that people in all parts of the UK benefit from the planned increases in investment.

If we, as representatives of different political parties, can work with other nations to agree on this approach, we believe it should be possible for the UK government to broaden its gaze beyond the Golden Triangle and grasp a more inclusive and productive future.

Kirsty Williams is cabinet secretary for education, and Julie James is minister for skills and science, in the Welsh Government. 

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