UK must compete with US and Asia on research translation, v-c warns

Challenge for UK as Asian research diaspora returns home, says China-born member of PM's science council

September 26, 2017
Asia reflection
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A new member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology has said that the UK is at risk of “being left behind by the rise of Asia” if it does not develop more partnerships with industry to translate research findings.

Max Lu, the China-born president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, said that the country will face an “ever increasing competition for talent” from Asian countries that are attracting their academic diaspora to return home.

Brexit, and the future of the UK's immigration regime, present another key issue when it comes to the UK's ability to attract research talent.

Professor Lu is one of five new members of the council, which advises Theresa May on strategic science and technology policy. The group meets several times a year to discuss issues that cut across the remits of individual government departments, such as research capability, innovation and the economy, and sustainable development and resilience.

The 21-strong group reports directly to the prime minister and also advises her on what the government’s high-level priorities for science and technology should be.

Talking to Times Higher Education following his appointment to the council, Professor Lu said that the UK should focus on its industrial strategy.

“In terms of science and technology policy we need to first preserve our historical strengths, which is scientific excellence [and] that means the talent coming in,” he said.

“Secondly, we need to look at how to increase international collaboration so we can get inward investment for commercial exploitation of our research outcomes,” he added.

Professor Lu, who is a chemical engineer and nanotechnologist, said that the UK is in a “weaker position in terms of the commercialisation of good ideas” compared with the USA.

“We don’t have as many high-tech companies as in America and that is a fact. We need to learn how we are going to have more partnerships to leverage our strong scientific basis in terms of…turning the ideas from bench to bedside – for clinical [research] – or laboratory to market,” he said.

He added that the new UK Research and Innovation body has a “key role to play in terms of how to optimise our resources and to leverage funding the government has put on the table to really generate more impact and to really benefit our economy”.

“The stakes are very high. We will be left behind by the rise of Asia. For example, China, India and South East Asian countries are investing so much in science and technology,” Professor Lu warned.

These countries are now “increasingly attracting” expatriate researchers back to their home countries, he added.

“We are faced with ever-increasing competition for talent. If we don’t focus on these things it will probably gradually lose our leading position and our universities will probably weaken in league tables,” he said.

Professor Lu added that he “fully embraces” the changes that will come with the formation of UKRI, which will bring all seven of the UK’s research funding councils into one umbrella organisation for the first time.

“UKRI will have great potential to facilitate and coordinate the interdisciplinary collaborations across disciplines,” he said, adding that the organisation will make the outcome of research investment "much greater than the sum of all the individual parts".

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