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A voice for the whole research system

04 May 2020

CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main on the need to protect the entire research ecosystem from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is one of the great pleasures of my role as Executive Director of CaSE that I get to know people, institutions and activities across the UK science base. When looked at closely, you see that the UK science base is a rich ecosystem of research and innovation by actors across the private, public and third sector. We are proud to count over 120 of these organisations in the CaSE membership, including multinational R&D-led corporates, early-stage investors, science parks, research institutes, learned societies, universities, Further Education colleges, publishers, research charities, trade unions and public science centres. 

The UK system is so remarkably successful because of this richness. It attracts talent from overseas and allows the flow of people and ideas around the various institutions and sectors. It makes the UK a place where you can ‘try things for the first time’, as one leading R&D multinational told me, because there is such strength in breadth, such excellence across all fronts.

In these first weeks of the covid-19 pandemic, we have seen many research-led organisations step up and do what they can to support the national response. Examples include testing and development of therapeutics and vaccines, helplines for advice, mathematical modelling, engineering solutions and behavioural insights. 

However, we have also seen that a range of research activities have had to be paused or cancelled across industry, academia and research charities, often due to significant financial pressure. It is likely that the re-start of research activity will be considered carefully in the new financial reality, and that research portfolios will be reassessed and reprioritised. R&D-led organisations and umbrella bodies have weighed up, assessed and reported the likely impacts on themselves and their sectors, in those areas where research has had to stop, as they must. Calls have been made to mitigate these impacts and we look forward to Government’s response.

With CaSE’s breadth of representation, we can speak for the whole science base and, specifically, for the value of its interconnectedness. I believe that the rich connections and interfaces of the science base, combined with the UK’s strength in breadth, are what enable UK science and research to perform well beyond its means. So I want to see that interconnectedness preserved through an R&D-led economic recovery from the impact of covid-19. I want to see the science base that emerges from and leads that recovery retain the magic of that richness that enables it to perform so well.

To do so, consideration must be given to supporting the whole system. In a time of crisis, it is natural that governments and institutions look to support and shore up national assets. In a time of noise and clamour, it would be easy for the Government to heed only the calls of the loudest and largest. Yet the Government has placed the UK’s research and innovation strength at the heart of its plans for the future. So it is imperative that careful thought is given to how to support the whole system and its network of interactions: not just the jewels, but the whole crown.

The effects of the covid-19 pandemic are likely to impact differentially across the science base: by geography, discipline, sector; exploratory research or applied. This will be particularly challenging in multi-partnership research endeavours with funders from the private, public and third sectors, where the timelines of ‘pain and recovery’ for each partner will not be aligned. There will be other interfaces that are likely to be equally fragile, such as research projects spanning disciplines or countries. 

This poses a question for funders and for Government as to how to protect and sustain such interfaces. These are an increasingly common feature of the UK landscape and an important catalyst for the journey of research and innovation to public use and societal benefit. They are also an important asset in driving productivity, preserving UK-based R&D activity and attracting Foreign Direct Investment, which will be so important as the Government seeks to stimulate economic recovery.

Important considerations lie ahead for individual institutions, funders and Ministers about how to support the UK research base. We can all think carefully about the shape of the research base that we want to see emerge, and how to sustain the highly networked research ecosystem on which we all rely. Through our members, CaSE will continue to listen to and advocate for organisations and individuals across science and engineering. CaSE will be a voice for the whole research and innovation ecosystem, its full range of actors and participants and the value of the connections between them.