UK R&D’s new road map points the way to a more innovative future

The cash injection announced by the government last week is the most ambitious plan of its kind Ed Byrne has seen in 40 years

July 8, 2020
Holding map
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The world today often seems like the beginning of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The worst is all too obvious: a pandemic that has inflicted massive damage to societies and economies. But I do firmly believe there are grounds for real optimism at a time when pessimism about our future is so rife.

We live in a highly innovative age, when many businesses, governments and civil societies around the world have shown great resilience and ingenuity in dealing with the challenges presented by the pandemic. Our capacity to absorb and adapt is no accident. This is the product of countries’ investment in their ingenuity – supporting their R&D base and investing in education and training over many years. 

In the UK, it is abundantly clear now just how radical the Conservative government is in its desire to take the country rapidly into the fourth industrial revolution in the fullest sense, in a race to the top that draws on the huge talents arrayed across society. Last week, it unveiled its “roadmap” to develop the UK’s R&D base; in nearly 40 years of working in universities in both Australia and the UK, this is singularly the most ambitious plan of its nature I have seen.

The roadmap touches on every key element of the research and innovation agenda, and signals not only massive investment but also welcome, overdue, reforms to help increase value for money and strengthen research culture. In particular, the plan to establish the UK Advanced Research Projects Agency, to fund high-risk, high potential return research projects, is bold and visionary. A country that aspires to be more innovative must be willing to be experimental in its funding approach.

As the UK looks to a more innovative and productive future, I am particularly heartened by the government’s recognition of and support for the nation’s universities as a central part of this story. Universities have played a major role in helping address the public health management of the coronavirus, as well as the search for treatments and vaccines.

But the coronavirus also presents stark challenges for universities. Present indications are that the pandemic’s impact will see a major downturn in international student numbers and, hence, a serious hit to university finances and our ability to fund innovative research and social impact activity. The government’s rapid and responsible announcement of a fair and balanced research support package will provide an effective safety net to maintain this research base.

Clever countries also invest in their people, and recent decades have seen a significant expansion in higher education participation. It is vital that the option to participate in higher education remains a broad-based, realistic opportunity for anyone with the talent and aspiration to strive to get in, regardless of social background and familial wealth.

Higher education is an increasingly diverse market these days, with many new providers. Provision is much more diverse, in both content and delivery. There remains real room for improvement, however. We need to see more flexibility in course structure, stronger linkages to employers and more rapid roll-out of higher education programmes focused on the skills needs of the fourth industrial revolution.

Much of what the sector does has genuine value, but clearly not all higher education provision is of uniform quality, as Charles Clarke and I have set out in a recent book, The University Challenge. While the opportunity to participate in higher education should be attainable for all who have the potential and work hard, with no caps on places, we should also reaffirm that higher education rests on a high-quality baseline of rigour. It should stretch and challenge students, and society rightly expects university admissions to work fairly for all.

To be clear, the continued use of contextualised admissions in a targeted manner is appropriate and meritocratic. Not as a way of enabling mass entry to weaker university degrees but as a judiciously employed mechanism for students who have demonstrated potential in other ways to access the most demanding degrees in the best universities. Ongoing monitoring of academic and career outcomes will ensure such programmes are working.

As the government seeks to level up opportunity and productivity in the UK, we should applaud the significant focus it is placing on innovation and talent development. However, care must be taken to enhance both academic and vocational pathways for talent development.

We should value and invest in the potential of the budding scientist, the aspirant historian, and the knowledge-hungry technician alike. All have valuable roles to play as the UK seeks to not only recover but revitalise.

Ed Byrne is president and principal of King’s College London.

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