HuaweiWhat shape will UK research take after Covid and Brexit?

What shape will UK research take after Covid and Brexit?

Collaborations between academia and industry must be made smoother if the UK is to achieve its industrial strategy goals, experts warn

At a time when UK higher education already faces a great deal of economic uncertainty, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have presented additional challenges for the sector to grapple with.

In the wake of a government spending review, experts from across the higher education and business sectors met at a virtual panel for THE Live UK to discuss the country’s best strategies for research going forward.

While the government’s latest announcement appears to reinstate its commitment to increasing public spending on research to £22 billion by 2024, the review left “as many questions open as it had answered”, said Sarah Chaytor, director of research strategy and policy at the UCL Institute of Education.

Joe Marshall, CEO of the National Centre for Universities and Businesses, argued that not enough attention had been paid to the innovation side of research outputs – a focus that would be crucial to attracting business investment to the UK in the coming months. “One of the things businesses are looking for is a signal that [government] treats research and innovation as equally important,” he said.

Along with ensuring a fairer geographical spread of funding across the UK, the panel agreed that smoother collaboration between universities, funders and industry would be crucial to the UK’s progress post-pandemic and post-Brexit.

UK chair of Huawei, Kenneth Olisa, argued that the UK has been historically bad at selling itself. “The concept of exploitation of an invention, the commercialisation of it…is something we are quite weak at,” he said.

Any new funding given should therefore be mindful of the importance of the sales side of research output. “My fear is that we’ll obsess for another decade about how much is being spent on R&D and we’ll miss completely the importance of having the infrastructure and then the exploitation [of research outputs],” Olisa said.

Brexit and Covid presented a “double shock [that] gives us a chance to re-examine and see clearly what we’ve been doing in the past hasn’t worked”, Olisa added. Use of new technologies and enhanced 5G infrastructure would also allow for “greater creativity all over the country rather than just in centres”, he said.

Peter O’Brien, executive director of Yorkshire Universities, agreed that the way public research funding is awarded should be reviewed, in particular by moving away from the UK’s tradition of competitive funding streams. Rather than competing against each other, institutions should be encouraged to work more collaboratively to research solutions to local and wider global challenges.

Universities should aspire to work more proactively with industry, but also the local communities they serve. "Increasing investment is good, but we all have a responsibility to the public and to future generations to demonstrate how that extra money is going to make a difference to their lives,” O’Brien said. “The way in which this pandemic has exacerbated inequalities is so profound it is damning.” There were, however, several positive examples of institutions coming together for the greater good during the past year.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was an excellent example of that, said Olisa: “You’ve got a relatively small group of people who invented something in conjunction with [industry]. I think post-Covid we can look back and celebrate the achievements of the Covid era, learn from them and magnify them.”

“There’s such an amazing role for all of us, but particularly from a university perspective, about who we work with in those local communities…in a post-Covid environment, if we can build on some of those successes that will help enormously to rebalance or level up the country,” O’Brien concluded.

The entire session is available above and on the THE YouTube channel. You can also access all the THE Live UK material here.

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