Levelling-up agenda ‘challenges everything’ in UK research funding

UKRI lead on place sees challenge to ‘idea that our research strength should all be concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions’

八月 4, 2020
a competitor comes tumbling down the hill during the cheese rolling competition near the village of Brockworth, Gloucester, in western England
Source: Getty

The UK government’s “levelling-up” agenda challenges “everything” in science funding, particularly “the idea that our research strength should all be concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions”, a sector leader said.

The comments by David Sweeney, executive chair of Research England, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), highlight how the Conservative government’s goal to prioritise economic growth in the regions could shift research funding strategy away from an emphasis on concentration in research-intensive universities.

Mr Sweeney, UKRI’s lead on place, spoke to Times Higher Education after the UK government’s recent Research and Development Roadmap confirmed that it was preparing an R&D Place Strategy, expected in the autumn.

Asked how the strategy could change what UKRI does, Mr Sweeney highlighted the organisation’s goals to engage better in the regions and to use its “own assets”, including research council institutes, to do more work in regional communities, as well as potential stepping up of its place-based schemes such as the Strength in Places Fund.

But he also highlighted other funding streams, where some, particularly in research-intensive universities, may have concerns about the place agenda supplanting so-called excellence-based funding.

“We do have to think hard about the traditional schemes we do, and how much they take place-based factors into account,” said Mr Sweeney, adding that “this is not a crude excellence-versus-place thing”.

He continued: “If you’ve got a levelling-up strategy, that’s a challenge to everything you do. That’s not a statement: ‘We’re going to alter the way we take decisions.’ But I do think it’s a statement of more clearly taking into account a range of factors in coming to a decision.”

Mr Sweeney added: “The idea that our research strength should all be concentrated in a relatively small number of institutions is really being challenged by the thought that perhaps we need to have capability better distributed across the country.”

A paper by Richard Jones, now chair in materials physics and innovation policy at the University of Manchester, has been heavily influential on government thinking in its argument that research investment can be the stimulus to help “lagging regions break out of the low innovation, low skills, low productivity equilibrium that they are trapped in”. Professor Jones’ paper noted that Oxford and its environs, Cambridge and its subregion, and inner West London “account for 31 per cent of all R&D spending in the UK”.

Will the proportion of research funding going to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and Imperial College London and UCL, come down?

“Trying to summarise it as ‘less money for London and the south east, more money for others’ is just not right,” replied Mr Sweeney. “I think there will be a challenge to universities in London and the south east about their partnerships [with institutions in other regions] and I think we’re only going to fund high-quality stuff wherever it is.”

The huge scale of the research spending increase being planned by the government leads many to argue that both “excellence-based” and “place-based” funding strategies can be accommodated.

Mr Sweeney said of the Strength in Places Fund, which awarded £186 million across seven research and industry consortia in its first wave and has opened its second wave: “Our ambition would be to do something that scales up considerably.”

Mr Sweeney said of the challenge for UKRI: “We’ve got to concentrate on the opportunities that there are in the [research spending] uplift, and we’ve got to deploy the funding that comes from the R&D envelope in a way that fully supports the levelling-up agenda.”




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