Redraw research success measures to back levelling-up, says v-c

Research funding increase must come with ‘place-based ecosystem’ or it will not boost productivity, says Hepi report co-authored by Lincoln leader

October 21, 2021

The “way we measure success” in the UK research system must change to put “greater emphasis on productivity and impact” to help universities drive levelling-up in the regions, according to the authors of a Higher Education Policy Institute report.

The Westminster government’s promised huge increase in research spending is “exciting and welcome but if it is not developed with a place-based ecosystem in mind it will not have the desired impact on inequality or productivity”, say Mary Stuart, the outgoing University of Lincoln vice-chancellor, and Liz Shutt, director of policy at Lincoln and the Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership, in their report, published on 21 October.

“Therefore, our focus is not on research per se, but how research creates innovation that enables enhanced productivity; which in turn should support levelling up left behind places,” adds the paper, titled Catching the Wave: Harnessing Regional Research and Development to Level Up.

Based on three case studies – San Diego, Lincoln and the Värmland region of Sweden – it looks at how university research and innovation activities can play a major part in developing regional economies.

In the case of Lincoln, a university founded in 1996 to address economic problems in a deindustrialised city “with much dereliction” has grown rapidly, in 2010 partnering with Siemens Energy to establish the first new engineering school in the UK in 20 years. The university has also “shaped a research portfolio that is built on the assets of the region”, focused on “new technologies enabling new industrial processes for older industries”, including a focus in agri-food technology, according to the report.

In the concluding section, Professor Stuart and Ms Shutt observe that levelling-up is “a collective endeavour”, calling for “a joined-up funding and policy environment that removes disincentives for collaboration”.

They argue that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the successor to European Union structural funds, “must continue support for regionally focused R&D activity that has previously been funded through the European Regional Development Fund”.

Innovate UK funding “should be further expanded beyond the current £490 million for core budgets, with a focus on locally (and robustly) defined clusters or innovation hubs”, they also say.

And on Research England’s place-based Connecting Capabilities Fund and Strength in Places Fund, “further thought should be given to how investment decisions might be tied more closely to locally defined priorities through engagement with local and regional partners beyond the R&D community”.

The authors also urge policymakers to “review the way we measure success: we need to use all available levers to support a greater emphasis on productivity and impact. There should be a review of the regulatory and funding system to identify disincentives for activities that would help address the regional imbalance. This should take into account the current focus on intellectual property, academic publication and university spin-outs as measures of success.”

Meanwhile, there should also be a drive to “increase the capacity of UK Research and Investment to locate and engage at a regional level in a way that supports increased understanding of the local nuances and developments around the UK. This needs to be based on deeper engagement with regional partners, including the public sector, industry and universities.”

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