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Exploring the UK’s public and non-profit research institutes

18 Aug 2021

James Wood takes a look at the 150+ research organisations who provide world class talent, facilities and expertise to UK research and innovation.

The ‘story’ of how the work of scientists in the lab translates to new technologies, products and services in our lives is often simplified down to just two parts; our universities and tech-intensive businesses. The gap between these two parts of the system and how to bridge it, is often seen as one of the defining policy challenges of UK R&D. It has become conventional wisdom (despite not being completely true) that while the UK are world-leaders in academic research, we fail to translate this in to value domestically, both economically and societally.

There is no one measure that can remedy this gap. But one key flaw of this ‘story’ is the exclusion of a set of organisations that are a core part of both research excellence and the efforts to translate it – public and non-profit research institutes. From the MET Office to the National Measurement Laboratory, these organisations provide a critical source of capability, not only in offering cutting-edge facilities but also in access to unique talent sets and training opportunities.

Firstly – Isn’t there a snappier title for these organisations? You may well have heard of PSREs (Public Sector Research Establishments), RCIs (Research Council Institutes) or National Labs, each denoting a different category of these institutes. PSREs, for example, have a host government department that provides (at least part) of its funding, though how departments manage their relationship varies greatly – a BEIS PSRE may be used very differently to a DCMS PSRE. They’re a difficult bunch to describe, and you can read more about some categorisations here.

But perhaps the most important thing to understand about this sector is how diverse its constituents are, even within these categories. For example, basic research is at the heart of almost every PSRE and is the largest part of what this sector does as a whole. However, the NHS Innovation Centres instead provide innovation consultancy services, helping the NHS to understand IP, how to commercialise and protect staff ideas, and how to capture the value of its knowledge assets – but zero basic research. Within RCI’s, some operate in a similar way to highly focused university laboratories, whilst others like the Alan Turing Institute, complement their basic research with work communicating the benefits and risks of the field to the public and exploring the skills needs for the industry as a whole.

A unifying facet of these organisations is that they have a specialist view of how the research in their sector translates into value for society. For some, that means they actively engage with industry, providing R&D support or delivering co-projects. For many others it means taking a long-term view of the needs of their respective research fields so their research is focussed on addressing key scientific questions, as well the skills, policy and infrastructure gaps that exist. These organisations are focal points of research and talent, so the UK has places it can turn to for expertise on everything from materials science to nuclear engineering.

This is just a snapshot of what they do. We can learn much from taking focused looks at their multitude of efforts; such as in talent, examining how institutes have developed different approaches to building skills, even multi-disciplinary researchers, who are tailored to their sector.

In the coming months CaSE will explore these organisations more deeply, looking not just at the great value they bring to UK research and innovation but the challenges they face. We’ll look at case studies and outline recommendations so everyone, from universities to business, from government to the institutes themselves, can best capture their value to make the UK a fantastic place not only to research, but to transform that research into tangible good for us all.

If this work sounds of interest and we’ve not spoken already, get in touch. You can reach me at