Chi Onwurah: research funding in regions could ‘rebalance economy’

Shadow science minister acknowledges challenge of combining excellence with ‘place’ in supporting R&D

July 22, 2017
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Making region a factor in some research funding decisions would help to address the problems of the UK’s “left behind”, according to Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central observed that both Labour and Conservative governments have been unsuccessful at rebalancing the country’s economy.

Ms Onwurah said that while policies should continue to direct funding into excellent science, geography should be taken into account “more broadly” when distributing money according to scientific priorities.

Policymakers are increasingly looking to consider location when making research decisions, to try to draw some funding away from the well-resourced golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge and into other areas of the country where investment is lower.

Ms Onwurah said: “Part of the political turmoil that we have seen is that certain demographic groups [and] areas have been left behind.

“We [Labour] have also been singularly – it is not just the Tories – unsuccessful at rebalancing our economy, and so it is inevitable and right that place should be part of what we are doing in every area.”

There is a “fantastic jobs base for the life sciences” in and around Cambridge, but some industries that are located in other regions are not so well served in terms of an equivalent level of cutting-edge research and development, she said.

A report published earlier this month by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University found that the Cambridge area, which has a population of just 285,000, has almost as many jobs in scientific research and development as the whole of the North of England, where the population is 15.2 million. The figure does not count jobs at the University of Cambridge.

But Ms Onwurah warned that the “devolution agenda” of using place in industrial strategy did not come without challenges. There was a danger that considering geography in decisions could “undermine excellence”, she said.

“Obviously, we need to continue to fund excellence because we punch above our weight in science and research, and we need to continue doing that…Place should be something that we can take into account more broadly when we take into account overall distribution of where our scientific priorities are,” she added.

These challenges are not insurmountable, Ms Onwurah continued. “If you look at the strengths of a region like the North East in manufacturing and in life sciences, we should be able to fund both excellence and consider place without undermining excellence,” she said.

The government's industrial strategy centres around 10 pillars – including investing in science, research and innovation and cultivating “world-leading sectors”. But Ms Onwurah said that “very little was concrete” in what the government has said on the strategy thus far.

Labour’s version of the document is “mission orientated” and focuses on the two challenges of decarbonising energy production and creating an innovation nation, she said.

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