James Tooze takes a look at the newly published plan for growing UK research and development.
Our first reflections on the Government’s R&D roadmap
02 Jul 2020
The publication of the Government’s R&D roadmap has been long awaited but I’m pleased to see that is has arrived, alongside some analytical documents I’m looking forward to getting my teeth in to. The green paper-style document shows that the Government wants to develop the UK’s long-term R&D strategy alongside the sector, including a section called ‘Being honest about where we need to improve’ showing openness to change for the better. Lacking in specific details it may be, but if consultation is carried out comprehensively and fairly the roadmap can truly be transformational for UK R&D.
The 60 page document encompasses a vast array of topics, from skills to business support, ‘ARPA’ to involvement with European funding programmes and comes hot on the heels of the Government’s Covid-19 support package for research announced last weekend. We will be unpicking all aspects of the roadmap over the coming weeks but I will make my best effort to summarise some of the key aspects of the paper and the Covid support package. It is clear that between these two announcements, the UK Government has fully understood the importance and significance of R&D carried out in the UK.
Support R&D through the Covid-19 pandemic
On Saturday BEIS announced a financial package for universities to offer support for research affected by a loss of funding because of the Covid-19 pandemic. BEIS announced that £280m will be made immediately available to help to extend and secure current research grants, helping to ensure that those dependent on such grants will not be unjustly affected by the complications of the current pandemic. The support package will also make low-interest loans available to universities against their losses from international students fee income, often used to cross-subsidise university research activities. These loans will be delivered with the explicit conditions that the money will be used to support research activity in universities, whether that be helping to pay for research staff contracts or to meet matched funding requirements for UKRI grants.
Commitments to support the breadth of UK R&D
The roadmap reaffirms the Government’s endeavour to increase the UK’s research intensity to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. The paper also confirms the commitment to increase public research investment to £22bn by 2024/25, showing that R&D remains a key priority in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. This increase in investment can be used to fund the breadth of research and innovation that is flourishing across the country. The roadmap states that ‘a significant proportion’ of this increased investment will be used to ‘restore and increase’ the UK’s portfolio of early stage, discovery research. This is a really welcome step from the Government, core budgets for Research Councils were held flat throughout most of the last decade and outlines the understanding of how important discovery research is. Within this, BEIS will seek to diversify the types of funding available for these types of research projects, hinting at adding new streams for team-based projects to operate in the longer-term with lighter-touch applications for funding opportunities.
The roadmap signals the Government’s intentions to go further in supporting, promoting and fostering innovative research that is performed in the private sector. Amongst a comprehensive set of parameters, the roadmap suggests the Government will be taking a hard look at how the environment for innovative businesses can be enhanced, whether it be reviewing regulation can be used to incentivise innovation or providing greater access to finance. This will be partly informed by an Innovation Expert Group to review how the Government supports research.
The paper also shows the Government is seeking to take a new approach to ambitious research projects, outlining the Council of Science and Technology’s principles for how to approach ‘moonshoot’ projects, seeking to support ambitious and cross-sector research tackling an important societal issue. The proposal to introduce a new funding agency broadly modelled on the US ARPA programmes also features, but with little detail. We have responded to the House of Commons Sci & Tech Committee’s inquiry into the potential new funding agency and we will publish our response once we are able to.
Using R&D as a tool to increase regional productivity across the UK remains a focus of the Government. There will be an R&D Place strategy published in the Autumn, after the Spending Review, but the roadmap still outlined some of the ways in which the Government seeks to tackle regional inequalities in R&D. The evidence we gathered in our Power of Place report, and its recommendations, feature heavily in the document. The roadmap states that pockets of research excellence, regardless of their size, should be supported to maximise the benefits from public investment which mirrors our report. The roadmap also says that local partnerships and strong local leadership will be required to define and deliver upon local opportunities, a further conclusion of our report. It is pleasing to see the acknowledgement of how important local expertise will be in helping to define interventions that will be most beneficial across the UK and we will be continuing to rely on our members to support our work with BEIS in this area.
Skills and talent
Perhaps the most comprehensive section of the roadmap relates to skills, both in supporting careers development and in attracting people from abroad. The document announced the creation of an Office for Talent, claiming this will ‘radically improve our approach to attracting global talent to the UK’. The Office for Talent will be based in Number 10, which means it may be able to address incompatibilities between the positions of different departments with regards to immigration policy. Alongside this, the roadmap sets out that the Government will be seeking to increase the eligibility for the Global Talent Visa to allow researchers to come to the UK without a job offer. Extensions will also be made on post-study work routes for those completing their PhD, allowing individuals to stay in the UK for 3 years before moving to a work visa.
The roadmap also addresses some key issues around career pathways in research. The paper recognizes that increasing diversity within the workforce will be vital to providing more opportunities to people across the UK and increase the quality of research that is carried out benefitting from greater diversity. This includes reviewing the career pathways for postgraduate research workers, increasing financial packages available for training and undertaking a review of how postgraduate careers can support the needs of every individual to progress their career. The roadmap also seeks to champion the roles of technicians in the UK’s research workforce with UKRI continuing to lead in addressing skills gaps that perpetuate in academia, business and charities.
The roadmap has stated the Government’s intentions with regards to the future relationship with Europe. The position of the Government remains that the UK will seek to be fully associated with Horizon Europe and Euratom, providing negotiations result in a ‘can agree a fair and balanced deal’ for the UK. Negotiations have already been started and are indeed being continued this week and we will be keeping a close eye on developments. Importantly, in the event that there is a gap between the end of Horizon 2020 and the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe, the Government has committed to making up any shortfalls over that period including covering costs associated with the UK taking part in Horizon Europe projects as third-party participants.
BEIS are seeking input from people across the R&D sector to feed into the development of the long-term roadmap. The deadline for the consultation is the 12th August. You can view the questions that the Government is seeking input on here.
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