Research-led arrows to hit technology bullseye

Witty recommends more collaboration, more funding and more weight for impact in REF

October 17, 2013

Local enterprise partnerships are “not quite working right” and need universities’ help, the author of a government-commissioned report into universities and growth has said.

Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, told Times Higher Education that LEPs, one of the government’s flagship approaches to regional growth, had a “crucial role” to play but limited resources.

“There is a sense in many of the LEPs that it’s not quite working right yet, and that they need some help…therefore partnering with the universities makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Encouraging a British Invention Revolution, published on 15 October, made a series of recommendations, including that the government boost funding for the Higher Education Innovation Fund to £250 million a year and increase the weighting of impact in the research excellence framework to 25 per cent.

Sir Andrew’s main proposal is to put £1 billion over the next parliament into “arrow projects” in technologies where the UK could have a comparative advantage. These should be in technologies where the UK is in the top three in the world, he said.

Such projects would involve university research at the “tip”, followed by an “arrow head” of LEPs, local businesses and supply chains, and supported by existing government agencies such as the Technology Strategy Board, he said. “What we don’t need is a lot more institutions. We need a consolidation of decision-making, so rather than fragmentation we should have more collaboration and streamlining,” he added.

It was up to the government whether the £1 billion came from new or existing sources, but he was “certainly not recommending we diminish” other mechanisms funding more basic research, he said.

The report fleshes out how the government might go about following up on its promise to back “eight great technologies”, which Sir Andrew said he broadly agreed were good targets.

A central theme was that efforts should not be dictated by postcode or asking “what can we do in this region”, but by technology strengths. These were “incredibly distributed” around the UK, said Sir Andrew, who denied that the plans would risk development in the regions.

“Actually I think the reverse is going to happen. We’ve had a long experience of trying to do it the other way, and during that period we had more concentration of growth in the South East,” he said

Universities and science minister David Willetts said the government would consider the recommendations and respond more fully in time.

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