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New review outlines how the UK can make the most of its science capabilities

14 Mar 2023

Camilla d'Angelo

Last week the findings from the long-awaited Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape led by Sir Paul Nurse were published. The Nurse Review was requested in 2021 by the UK Government’s then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Sir Paul concludes that underinvestment in UK R&D by successive Governments has undermined the resilience of the sector. He makes a series of recommendations for how the UK can make the most of its science capabilities to improve lives and livelihoods, through integrating national assets, infrastructure, skills, and investment.

The publication of the review coincides with the recent establishment of the new Department for Science Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which has itself just published its 10 priorities as part of the new Science and Technology Framework. It is hoped that the new dedicated department can provide a more strategic focus to drive forward the changes that are needed.

The review contains a number of things CaSE have been calling for and recommended over the last few years. It makes recommendations across a whole range of areas, which include: universities, public sector research establishments, institutes and units, charity funding, business investment, and society benefits and the public. Below we pull out some of the main themes.

Policy stability

Sir Paul emphasises that the Government must take a long-term and strategic approach to bring about the changes necessary. It’s positive to see the Review recognise the importance of long-term stability and predictability, in addition to increased funding, in ensuring a successful R&D landscape within the UK. At CaSE we have long argued that stability of intent, supported by sustained investment, will assure businesses of the security of their own investment plans and, importantly, attract the investors and innovators we need to the UK. We have also previously heard this from our members, who have emphasised that leadership and long-term R&D investment from Government enables them to plan and gives industry confidence to keep on investing in R&D. A stable, long-term plan for science is vital to help research and innovation thrive in a way that improves people’s lives and livelihoods. 

The review also emphasises the importance of incentivising private sector R&D to drive economic growth and increase productivity. Part of this will require increased mobility between different parts of the research landscape to encourage knowledge transfer. Nurse makes recommendations about increasing the permeability between different kinds of organisations in the research and innovation landscape. Greater mobility between universities and local industries could help in the transfer of knowledge, skills and expertise to support regional economic growth.

Supporting a diversity of research organisations

The review makes the case for supporting and leveraging all parts of the research system to support innovation. This includes increased support for university research but also support for a greater diversity of organisations, such as public sector research establishments (PSREs).

From our work, we know the great value PSREs bring to UK research and innovation and the importance of using all parts of the R&D ecosystem. CaSE is pleased to see the recommendations from our report on ‘Unlocking the potential of PSREs’ covered in the review. In this report, we outlined recommendations on how the Government can better utilise PSREs, including ensuring they have sustainable funding, strong governance and closer partnerships with the Government’s policy teams. Sir Paul recommends, as we did, a more strategic approach to PSREs by the Government.

The financial sustainability of university research needs to be addressed. Sir Paul cautions that the reliance of universities on commercial income sources, such as fees paid by international students is not always reliable and sustainable. The review also highlights the need to take into account end-to-end funding that covers administrative and technical and laboratory facilities costs as well as direct research costs. To this end Nurse calls for a detailed review of response-mode and competitive grants, full Economic Costing (fEC) and Quality-related Research Funding (QR).

International collaboration

There is an emphasis on the vital importance of international collaboration, with Sir Paul Nurse calling it “essential” to secure the UK’s association to European research programmes. This comes at a time of uncertainty regarding the UK’s association to Horizon Europe – the UK Government has struck a notably lukewarm tone in recent days. There is also nothing in the DSIT Science and Technology Framework about securing the UK’s association to Horizon Europe. Now that the political block on Northern Ireland has been lifted, the R&D community are as one in calling for the Government to secure the UK’s association as a priority. Association to Horizon Europe will be essential to accelerate the Government’s ambitions for research and innovation.

Talent and skills

There is a welcome focus on the importance of investing in R&D talent at all stages. Wider skills provision will be needed to meet the requirements of an expanding R&D sector, and ensure that everyone can participate in and benefit from a more R&D intensive UK. The Government must ensure that the uplifts to R&D spending are supported by investment in the people and skills that underpin it.  We are carrying out a piece of work on how the Government can unblock some of the sticking points. This will require coordination of skills policy across Government as well as considerations for how skills policy will interact with wider agendas and any unintended consequences. We have urged the new science department to help co-ordinate the joining up of skills policy across Government, so that the UK attracts and trains the most talented scientists and researchers to work in the UK.

R&D and society

There is an important focus on the societal benefits of R&D. Research and innovation can lead to many benefits, including improved health care, equitable regional economic growth across the country, and delivery of net zero, amongst others. The review calls for the Government to take increased responsibility for driving research and innovation that provides societal benefit as well as economic growth. CaSE’s recently published Discovery Decade work (a major study of public opinion) shows that the public often struggles to see the benefits of R&D and so it will be vital to show that R&D investment translates into real world benefits for real people.

Read our initial response to the Nurse Review

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Independent Review of the UK’s Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape

The full publication of the Nurse Review

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