05 February 2018

Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, takes a closer look at the crucial role of publicly sponsored research agencies in boosting the long-term health of UK science and engineering.

Unlike many countries in Europe, a large part of government funded basic research in the UK is undertaken in our world leading universities. However, we should not forget the strength of our publicly funded/sponsored research public bodies, agencies and research institutes. This concentration of expertise adds to our international standing in terms of our research strengths and in terms of attracting talented scientist from across the world to the UK. It also has a number of other positive consequences including the training of early career researchers, outreach to schools and colleges to encourage young people to aspire to careers within STEM and partnerships more widely with international, national and local businesses as well as our universities and hospitals. 

Why is this important? Why is this important now? I would like to mention two reasons. 

One the world of science is changing and in order to continue to be internationally competitive, we will need to have a critical mass of researchers working together. Often, we will also have to bring together expertise across a range of disciplines if we are to tackle world problems for example like climate change, increasing aging population or sustainable food supplies for all. These institutes are centres of such expertise.We only have to think of the quality and breadth of research at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge or the newly formed Francis Crick Institute in London.

Secondly, the industrial strategy recognises the importance of place. We have large differences across the regions of the UK in terms of achievement of our schools, productivity of our businesses and the social outcomes for our young people. Why is this relevant to our publicly funded institutes? Well they are situated across the width and breadth of the UK. They are located not just in large urban areas but across the whole country. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit any of these establishments will be impressed by the importance of these centres of expertise to their local communities. This is often because of their internationally recognised brand and their ability to look outwards carrying out world leading research or analysis but also working with stakeholders locally to increase knowledge transfer, innovation and exploitation.

Let us take a couple of outstanding examples. 

The Met Office is an executive agency based in Exeter. It has exceptional expertise in weather forecasting and climate change modelling. They provide the UK and others across the world with data which allows us to be increasingly prepared for severe weather events as well as providing core data essential for example for the aviation industry. Many of their staff are involved in handling and analysing large data sets – key skills that are needed in many areas of activity.  They already provide a lot of outreach to encourage young people to take an interest in STEM.  They work closely with the universities and city and county councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships to make Exeter an attractive place for new businesses and one of the fastest growing cities in the SW. 

The National Physical Laboratory is based at Teddington but provides expertise and advice to industries around the country. For example, they have strong links with high tech manufacturing in Huddersfield and with input from NPL and its strong international brand these small innovative companies have been able to compete more easily in the international export market. Again this is ensuring more employment and high tech expertise in regions throughout the UK.  

There are many more such publicly sponsored institutes with high level of expertise which I could have mentioned included those funded by some of the research councils and other government departments. With the recent announcement of the UKRI infrastructure road map, I should also mention the importance of STFC and its facilities based in Rutherford, Daresbury and Edinburgh as well as its role as UK’s arm in many international projects in particle physics and astronomy that involve very large scale facilities. 

So we should celebrate and promote the excellence in STEM research and skills that reside within publicly sponsored research institutes and agencies.  We should see them as an integral part of the research environment in the UK along with our Universities and Industries. We should recognise their importance and include in policy work going forward especially in strengthening our science base through access to facilities and expertise that go beyond any one university. Moreover, they offer a key component of the Government’s Industrial Strategy in terms of strengthening local economies and regional productivity across the whole of the UK.   

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