31 May 2019

Neil Jacobs from Jisc discusses how support for research infrastructure and big data can drive the UK forwards

Funding for research and development is increasing around the world as governments, companies and academic institutions strive to remain competitive in a world increasingly shaped by technology.

Ranking in the top ten of countries’ spend on R&D, the UK has pledged to step up by setting an ambitious target for the UK to become the most innovative country in the world and increase its total R&D expenditure to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

With the government’s willingness to expand the R&D budget, this seems a good time to pause and reflect on where to focus investment in R&D to support the fourth industrial revolution and big-data research.

For the UK to be at the forefront of data-oriented research, the sector must have a highly robust and secure network, powered with industry-leading technology that can scale to support bandwidth-intensive technology like genome editing and The Square Kilometre Array. As one of the busiest, fastest and most secure private networks of its type in the world, the Jisc-run Janet Network provides the UK’s research and higher education sectors with access to very high-speed, reliable connectivity, with in-built cyber security.  

To attract international investment in UK R&D, talented researchers need to be linked with industry partners and the right infrastructure. For example, the development of 5G testbeds will enable partnerships between researchers and the private sector,such as a 5G and internet of things project in Worcester involving Malvern Hills Science Park, the Local Enterprise Partnership, Worcester  County Council, Mazak, Bosch, and QinetiQ.

The importance of investing in research infrastructure as well as developing digital skills is also highlighted by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) in their latest report, Building on Scientific Strength; The Next Decade of R&D Investment. Jisc welcomes their recommendation that the Government should front-load investment in these areas to ensure UK R&D capability can sustain growth.

Jisc continues to work to connect science parks to the Janet Network as a means of fostering such useful relationships between research and business. Fortunately, through Jisc, the government is committed to continuing the strategic development of the Janet Network, in the context of the forthcoming UKRI research and innovation infrastructure roadmap, alongside services supporting research data management and further enhancements to security and access control.

Developing the economy to be more data-driven also has the potential to reduce the gap between the least and most productive companies within any sector. This divide is a growing problem for the UK and puts the brakes on our national productivity. 

However, a dynamic data-driven economy is only achievable if foundational datasets are open or available with very low barriers, within legal and ethical constraints. There needs to be a step change in the availability of open data and of data scientists. Otherwise, the benefits will only accrue to big businesses able to access these resources. 

Universities are already exploring greater collaboration by sharing their state-of-the-art equipment with each other, the research community and with industry – from anechoic chambers to wind tunnels, mass spectrometers to super-computers.

The sector is also increasingly focused on open science/data wherever possible, and in training highly skilled data analysts, software and modelling experts.  For example, analytics labs are run several times a year, bringing together data analysts to work on key topics and challenges in the HE sector to provide data-driven solutions. In a small way, this project will contribute to developing the talent the UK needs. According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), only 4% of companies report having the right people, tools and data to be able to draw meaningful insights from data.

At the moment, postdocs from the hard sciences are the most likely to obtain the skills and knowledge to work with large data sets. The well-documented loss of those postdocs from the academic sector is a problem,  even if it benefits the wider economy. Science increasingly depends on the skills of frontline scientists, but also other roles such as those supporting complex research infrastructure. Some argue that talent lost from academic research is partly due to excessive burden, affecting their wellbeing.

Another point that needs to be addressesd with regards to the increased R&D investment is that the funding needs to be shared between the public and private sectors.  Indeed, the lesson from other countries is that it’s not possible to achieve a rapid increase in the percentage of GDP going into R&D unless the lion’s share of the contribution comes from the private sector.

This concern is also voiced by the CBI in its recommendation to focus on tax credits, which is an effective way to leverage funding with help from the private sector. There are other public spend measures that ‘crowd in’ private R&D funds, one of which is the Higher Education Innovation Fund scheme that backs development of a broad range of knowledge-based interactions between universities and the wider world.  Open science, too, is a part of this picture, for example the world-leading work of the Structural Genomics Consortium.  As diverse public-private research collaborations emerge to meet the aspirations of the UK industrial strategy, demands for relevant skills, secure infrastructure and a more healthy research culture to support them will surely grow.

Any significant policy initiatives affecting the way university-based R&D is funded should take these burdens into account, especially in an environment where the outcomes of the Augar review may impact negatively on university finances by cutting tuition fees.

If universities are increasingly driven by commercial demand, the Haldane principle will come under considerable strain. The idea that decisions about on what to spend research funds should be made by researchers rather than politicians otherwise we risk jeopardising UK’s undoubted success in research. 

Neil Jacobs is head of open science and research lifecycle at Jisc, the  not-for-profit membership organisation providing technology solutions for the UK’s further and higher education sectors

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