Cuts to the golden triangle could leave the UK in bad shape

Both the rationale and the mechanism for redistributing research activity around the regions are far from clear cut, say Sarah Chaytor and Graeme Reid   

December 6, 2018
Illustration - THE lead opinion 6 December 2018
Source: Michelle Thompson

The UK government’s commitment to raise the country’s total R&D investment to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 has led many to demand that this spending be marshalled to tackle stubborn regional disparities in prosperity and well-being.  

Much attention has focused on existing variations in R&D investment across the UK. For instance, the terms of reference for the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s ongoing inquiry into the “balance and effectiveness of research and innovation spending” specifically reference “the balance of public R&D funding between the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge and the rest of the UK”.

About half of the UK’s total R&D investment goes to London, the east of England (which includes Cambridge) and the south-east (which includes Oxford). This includes corporate spending, some of which might be attributed to London headquarters rather than the regional laboratories where the money is actually spent. Even so, these regions account for a large proportion of national investment, and this supposed “concentration” has become pungent as the economic divide between the wider south-east and the rest of the UK has widened. Some are calling for a “redistribution” of public research funding.

However, if we are to address regional disparities, we first need to understand them. The popular image of concentration in the golden triangle masks a more complicated picture. This does not in itself undermine the case for redistribution, but it does raise questions about its method and purpose. 

Official figures show that the east of England attracts by far the most R&D funding per university, at £629 million, compared with £370 million in the south-east (excluding London). London itself receives only the 8th-highest amount (£129 million), after the Midlands (£231 million), north-west (£211 million), south-west (£166 million), Northern Ireland (£162 million) and Scotland (£130 million).

The east also receives the most per head of population, at £918. London, at £555, is just above the national average of £502.

Turning to R&D funding as a proportion of regional GDP, the east of England again leads the way, at over 3 per cent, with the south-east receiving 2.5 per cent. The north-west, south-west, Midlands, Scotland and Northern Ireland all receive between 1.4 and 1.6 per cent; London has the second smallest proportion, at just over 1 per cent.

So while the east is the top performer whichever of these methods is chosen, and the north-east, Wales and Yorkshire and the Humber consistently rank at the bottom, other regions do better or worse depending on which metric is chosen.

This matters in the context of the 2.4 per cent commitment, which, while representing a huge increase in the UK’s investment in research, is still only an aspiration to reach the current average among OECD member nations – which, on current trends, will hit 2.8 per cent by 2027 – leaving the UK still lagging. Sacrificing national research performance in pursuit of poorly thought through regional redistribution would be folly.

Reaching 2.4 per cent, and making the most of it, will require many smart choices, sometimes providing even more support for the strongest R&D clusters and sometimes reinforcing smaller ones. Increasing business investment will be crucial since it makes up about 65 per cent of UK R&D spending. The high levels of investment in the east no doubt reflect the many global corporations that locate R&D activities close to the University of Cambridge; it would be absurd to reduce public funding for Cambridge and thereby reduce its appeal to such investors.  

On the other hand, persistently low productivity levels in Wales and the north-east could be addressed – at least partly – by raising public R&D investment there, in the hope of attracting more business spending (either at the expense of investment elsewhere in the UK or by diverting resources from other areas of regional economic development into R&D).

Broadly speaking, more populous areas with larger numbers of universities receive the highest amounts of research funding. The larger golden triangle universities submit more research council bids, but – as borne out in Times Higher Education’s recent analysis of the latest research council figures – they do not enjoy higher success rates than other research intensives.

From at least one vantage point, the distribution of research funding is a consequence of the distribution of talent. The apparent concentration of research in the golden triangle is little more than a reflection of the distribution of people in the UK – including researchers.

If the government wants to use research investment wisely, then of course it should look at distribution. But let’s not pretend it’s as simple as transferring money between regions. Modifying the regional distribution of researchers and their families would require different policy responses, including spending on housing, health and education, along with investment in infrastructure. And it would raise profound questions about the choices people exercise when deciding where to pursue research careers.

Sarah Chaytor is director of research strategy and policy and Graeme Reid is chair of science and research policy at UCL. They acknowledge the assistance of Grace Gottleib.

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Print headline: Cuts to the golden triangle could leave the UK in bad shape

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