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CaSE in 2021 – Director’s report to the AGM

11 Nov 2021

Executive Director Professor Sarah Main gives her report on CaSE’s activities and successes at the 2021 AGM on 10th November.

I am delighted to be speaking to you from our new offices at the Royal Society of Biology, CaSE’s new home as of a month or so ago. Having been working entirely remotely for 18 months, it has been a joy to see the whole CaSE team in person again and share our time, space, and ideas on where to go for lunch. We look forward to welcoming you here as opportunities arise. 

My role in this AGM is to reflect on CaSE’s activities and achievements over the last year. Let me start by saying how proud I am of the CaSE team for what they have achieved this year and thanking every one of them.  

So much has been achieved and so much has changed, it’s worth pausing to think of how we started the year.  

When I cast my mind back to January of this year, I think of mud. Dragging unwilling children out for walks (that were good for them!) during the wettest of lock downs in January, coming back with clods of mud falling off every item of clothing.  

And if I allow myself to glimpse back for a moment longer, I remember the very particular pressure of home schooling (primary school year 1 and year 6 in my case); squeezing home schooling and work into the same day, each day, for months. Well done to all of us who did it and thank you to everyone who supported us. 

But, of course, one more look at January 2021 tells you it was the beginning of the vaccine roll out: a stupendous accomplishment in which, over the course of 2021, three quarters of the UK population were vaccinated, against a virus only identified the year before – an uptake of just under 90% of people offered a vaccine. For comparison, the flu vaccine programme, which has high take up in the UK compared to the rest of Europe, is attempting for the first time to vaccinate just over half of the population – aiming for 35m people vaccinated this year, compared to the 50m people vaccinated against Covid. This vaccination programme has set a new bar, and set a new tone in discussion about vaccination. 

There is of course a long way to go. Over 7 billion doses have been administered worldwide. But coverage varies, from 80% fully vaccinated in Spain, to 25% in India and 1.5% in Nigeria. 

This last statement bears witness to what I believe to be true; that science and engineering have a powerful role to play in tackling issues relevant to our lives, but they do not work alone. The forces of politics, economics and public opinion all shape how science and engineering manifest in people’s lives. They shape how people access and participate in innovation and discovery. Science and engineering must work in concert with people, methods and perspectives, not just from different disciplines of research, but from across the full richness of life and society if they are to connect with and enhance people’s lives. 

I am excited and proud that CaSE has taken its own small step into this domain. Through our new programme, The Discovery Decade, CaSE will be exploring how to build and harness a broader and more active base of public support for research investment. More vibrant public support for R&D investment will strengthen CaSE’s existing advocacy to Government and, importantly, help deliver the widest possible benefit of that public investment to society.  

The Discovery Decade programme is supported by a significant grant from the Wellcome Trust, awarded this year. It will explore and understand how to create a compelling vision that speaks to broader sections of the public; through new audience research, prototyping of advocacy tools that can reach these new supporters, and working with partners to scale and deploy these tools around selected moments and places. You can read more about the Discovery Decade on our website, including the great team of new colleagues who will be running it. We’ll be reaching out to work together with you on it in the coming months. 

One of the outcomes of the Discovery Decade programme in the future might be a greater public voice for research and innovation at Government decision points, for example at Comprehensive Spending Reviews of the kind we have just been through. For the moment, though, let me take a little time to tell you about the enormous efforts of the CaSE team over the last few months to inform and influence the Comprehensive Spending Review.  

I am so proud of the team and what we have achieved. Our work has been both proactive and reactive, in the public domain and behind the scenes. We have strengthened our relationships and depth of trust with UKRI, Government and our members over the course of events.  

Overall, the outcome of the Spending Review was positive for UK science and engineering, with the Chancellor placing research and innovation at the heart of his plan for growth. The Government committed to investing £20 billion in R&D by 2024/25 – a 34% increase from this year, nearly but not quite reaching their manifesto target of £22bn by 2024.  

Over the autumn, CaSE published a five-point roadmap towards cementing the UK’s role as a ‘science superpower’, drawn up in discussion with our members. Behind the scenes we held discussions with HM Treasury, Cabinet Office, UKRI, BEIS and other parts of government to feed our messaging into the Spending Review process.  

In response to late-stage concern about the solidity of Government’s R&D commitments, CaSE published analysis warning that the UK risked missing out on £11 billion in private R&D investment if the government delayed its timetable for investing in science by three years. This was followed by analysis of the international picture, showing the UK’s relative stagnation on R&D spending over the last 20 years as other nations have rushed forward; and illustrating that the UK’s target for research intensity, whilst ambitious, was the least ambitious in the G7. We worked with our contacts in the media to press these messages, receiving coverage from the Daily Express to BBC News and the Financial Times.  

We joined forces with the sector and our members. For example, on a letter to the Chancellor from 32 leading scientific organisations; holding a series of meetings for our members with UKRI on the Spending Review; and taking opportunities to put our members’ view directly to Government Ministers and the Secretary of State.  

I hope this summary illustrates the multi-faceted approach we took to our Spending Review campaign, using our strengths as a membership and advocacy organisation, our ability to be agile and responsive, and working in partnership across the sector, to ensure that Government support for research and innovation was secured at this Spending Review. I have been glad to have feedback that we were an effective voice for the sector during this time. 

I am often asked how CaSE measures its success. It is hard to do when your job is influencing, in an area that is, in fact, influenced by many forces, individuals and organisations. But I do take it as a mark of success that a (very) senior figure from the Chancellor’s office contacted us the day before the Spending Review offering us information and his mobile number, saying that he wanted to ensure we were fully briefed.  

CaSE has achieved a great deal on other fronts over this year. I will mention a few briefly here and you can read more about them on our website. 

We ran an effective campaign at the start of the year to highlight the unresolved issue of funding for the UK’s participation in European research programmes. We raised the issue with Members of Parliament, Select Committees and with the media, convening a stellar panel of advocates from universities and academies for a media briefing that really pushed the issue into the spotlight. Treasury came through with additional funds for the Horizon Europe subscription this year, and we were pleased to see a line in the Spending Review of allocated funds for the next three years. 

I am delighted that we published a report on science education this year, asking if the system is optimally tuned to equip today’s school generation to be the creators and beneficiaries of a more research and innovation intensive UK tomorrow. Our report, Inspiring Innovation, makes recommendations in three areas: a confident and empowered teaching workforce; making science and engineering careers inclusive for all young people; and exploring innovation through practical, hands-on science. 

CaSE used this and other work to contribute to the Government’s Innovation Strategy, including partnering with Lego Education to explore innovation skills in education. 

Keeping on the theme of creativity and crossing boundaries, CaSE worked extensively with the Physiological Society this year on interdisciplinary research. We co-hosted a roundtable on the role of Government in supporting interdisciplinary research which led on to a full report by the Physiological Society on the future of interdisciplinary research beyond REF 2021. 

There is much else besides, including our work across the UK on the Devolved, local and Mayoral elections, but I will move on now to look briefly to the future.  

The first thing to say is that I am delighted that CaSE is connecting our interests in research and innovation in the UK with the parallels and lessons to be learnt from the USA. President Biden took office this year and brought in a new era and tone on science in the USA. I am excited to be able to invite you to our Distinguished Annual Lecture on 29th November, ‘Placing science and innovation at the heart of the U.S. and UK’s future’, given by the Director of the National Science Foundation, Dr Sethuraman Panchanathan. The NSF is the USA’s largest funder across all fields of fundamental science and engineering research.  

Looking further ahead, CaSE will be launching a new strategy next year to take us through to the end of the decade. The CaSE team and board have been working on this over the course of this year and I look forward to sharing our thoughts with you in the new year. 

There is much to be excited about. The environment in the UK for science and engineering is strong and a positive path has been set by Government. But there are choices ahead about how rising investment is deployed, how to involve and inspire the public, and how we partner across the world. 

Thank you to you, all our members, for your support, energy and involvement over the last year. You enable us to be an informed, evidenced and effective advocate for the sector. I very much look forward to working with you in the year ahead. 

Thank you. 

For further information read our latest Annual Review.