PA Consulting How can universities transform the UK into an R&D superpower?

How can universities transform the UK into an R&D superpower?

UK research and development

In 2020, the UK government announced a once-in-a-generation opportunity to boost the UK’s position in research and development. How can universities work with government and business to ensure these ambitions are met?

In July 2020, the UK government published an ambitious road map to revitalise research and development, announcing that it would more than double R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024-25. With Brexit sealed and a need to drive innovation after the pandemic, it hopes that this investment will fuel the UK’s transformation into a scientific superpower. Universities that are able to commercialise their R&D projects and engage with the private sector will reap the rewards of the government’s renewed focus. 

But there are barriers to overcome. Jack Thompson, government and public sector expert at PA Consulting, explains: “The UK has historically spent less than its peers on R&D and has a weak record of commercialising it. We tend to have a lot of citations, but less in terms of R&D commercialisation and businesses investing in front-end research.” Added to this is the geographically skewed nature of R&D investment in the UK, with 41 per cent of it concentrated in the golden triangle of London universities, Oxford and Cambridge. “If the UK wants a sustainable innovation ecosystem, R&D investment needs to be place based and spread across the UK,” Mr Thompson adds.

To address these challenges and make the most of increased investment, universities must work more strategically and cohesively, and this involves taking a new approach to partnerships with industry and the private sector. PA Consulting higher education expert Jonathan Barton says this begins with setting out clear, institution-wide research priorities. “Universities must target the government’s R&D moonshots, identifying and aligning with areas where they have a competitive advantage over other institutions,” says Mr Barton. “That means creating a model that draws on and combines the deep disciplinary expertise held within academic departments and schools into multidisciplinary, market-facing propositions to deliver on national R&D priorities.”

Institutions must engage with a wider network of stakeholders and act “in a more collaborative way from the start, providing a platform for public- and private-sector organisations to connect with individual academics”, says Mr Barton. While the central players will be government, funding bodies and research offices at universities, a broader web of organisations will be involved in the process of commercialising R&D. As academics develop ideas and blue-sky research, there will also need to be a dialogue with regulators, private investors and local supply chains for manufacturing. This holistic approach is not only likely to drive results but is also attractive to students. 

Universities can optimise their approach to research in three ways, explains Mr Thompson. First, they should be user-focused, working out where they need to deliver value. This could be identifying an area of priority or industry use case, looking at feasibility or mapping cost and time to market. Second, they must be agile in the way they conduct research, looking at shorter timescales and “sprints” rather than the waterfall effect of one big project after another. Finally, they need to consider their impact. They should ask: “Are we a team of academics doing our own thing or working towards a collective, cohesive outcome at school or university level? How are we delivering impact to the local or national economy?” Mr Thompson says. By considering these three factors, institutions are better placed to commercialise their research and form productive partnerships with industry. 

Some institutions, such as the University of Birmingham, have started taking different approaches, such as using accelerators to drive research. Others have implemented a portfolio approach, where universities measure success based on their entire output rather than marking some projects as failures and others as wins. “Historically, universities have been driven by outputs rather than outcomes. Delivering a strategic portfolio approach to research enables an institution to take bets on more risky and innovative research projects, learning along the way while balancing the portfolio with more secure and stable projects,” Mr Barton adds.

Universities will not transform their R&D strategies overnight. But they can experiment with new models across certain sectors and extend them as they feel comfortable. The UK has become a research success story in the way it has rapidly developed, manufactured and rolled out Covid-19 vaccinations. Now is the time to capitalise on this success and replicate it. 

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