Call for mission-focused ‘collaboration zones’ to boost UK R&D

Vice-chancellors and business leaders urge tighter focus and fresh funding incentives to drive up industry-academia innovation

November 13, 2020
Source: iStock

The UK should identify a series of grand scientific challenges for industry and academia to collaborate on and back these with funding incentives if the country is to hit its research spending targets, according to a new report.

A review of research and development spending, conducted by the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) at the request of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), says that the government’s pledge to increase research and development spending to £22 billion by 2024-25 must be accompanied by an additional £17.5 billion of private outlay to reach the goal of investing 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product annually by 2027. The review says that the average yearly increase in private investment needs to be nearly £2 billion, more than double the average increase of £900 million in recent years, and highlights survey data indicating that around half of universities reported a decline in business collaboration as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To achieve this, the review – produced by a task force of leading vice-chancellors and bosses of major companies including Rolls-Royce and GlaxoSmithKline – says that the government should direct academic and commercial research efforts at a series of missions that could include grand challenges such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions but should also include commercially focused opportunities in areas such as biotechnology and quantum technologies.

A mission-centred approach was adopted in the 2017 Industrial Strategy, but the NCUB report says little progress has been made on supporting these areas. It urges the creation of a network of “innovation collaboration zones” across the UK, modelled on German research campuses and Silicon Valley in the US, aligned to commercial missions. These could be supported by increased research and development tax credits for businesses operating in the zones, strategic funding from the government or UKRI, simplified planning rules and joint appointments across industry and academia.

UKRI should also review how existing funding schemes could be “joined up” to support commercial missions involving industry and academia, the report says.

Other recommendations include:

  • Increasing UKRI investment in quality-related research funding
  • Widening the remit of the recently announced Office for Talent beyond international recruitment to support the development of local skill bases
  • Improving support and mentoring for PhD students and early career researchers
  • Creating a “global collaboration fund” within UKRI which would encourage universities to form consortia and attract international research and development funding.

University leaders on the panel included the vice-chancellors of Brunel, Cranfield, Glasgow, Keele and Oxford universities.

Sam Laidlaw, chair of NCUB and the task force that produced the report, said that it was “crucial that government, universities and business collectively act on the report’s recommendations to build a more resilient, productive and innovative economy”.

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