Zoe Angel, Research Fellow at The Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast, outlines how Northern Ireland can capitalise upon the UK Government’s ‘Place’ agenda
Why levelling up’ should prioritise Northern Ireland
25 Sep 2020
Levelling up in Research and Development
Investing in research is beneficial to an economy, because innovations improve things like healthcare, the environment and make technologies more efficient. Just look at the multi-fold return on the dollar that the USA makes from its investment in NASA.
However, compared to other countries, UK spending on Research and Development (R&D) is low (1.7% compared with the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP). We also have significant regional inequality. A UKRI report reveals that a staggering 52% of the national gross expenditure on R&D is spent in three regions: London, the South East, and the East of England, whereas only 2% is spent in the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland (NI). This is due to reduced investment (both public and private), businesses, and jobs in those areas. A report from the innovation foundation Nesta – the Missing £4 Billion, details that underfunded parts of the UK have been deprived of up to £4bn of public spending every year, which could have generated another £8bn in private investment. It also illustrates that NI spends more per capita than the UK average on business R&D, which suggests that it deserves a larger investment from the central UK government.
To address these issues, the Government’s agenda includes boosting R&D as a whole by £22bn a year (attempting to meet the OECD average by 2027) as well as “levelling up” by targeting money towards poorly funded regions. This is also politically motivated, and helped secure a win for Johnson in many Leave-voting constituencies in the North, Wales, and Midlands. Following through on these promises will be paramount to retain support from these regions and therefore, despite the pandemic and Brexit, the “levelling up” agenda continues to feature in Johnson’s speeches.
How should the money be spent?
The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a non-profit advocate group, has carried out research into successful R&D across the UK. They come to three broad conclusions:
1) Investment should focus on local industry that has already proven successful, as this demonstrates its innate resilience. Regions with capacity for specific strengths should market these by branding, like the “Northern Powerhouse” and “Golden Triangle” slogans.
2) Regional R&D success is dependent on inspiring business leaders, and supportive civic leaders and local authorities.
3) Small and medium-sized enterprises may require financial support, especially since many will be vulnerable from losing access to EU structural funds.
The NI Bio-Belt
So what and where are our R&D strengths in NI? While traditionally known for shipbuilding, NI is now a hub for laboratories specialising in clinical diagnostics, drug development, and commercial research services.
The in vitro diagnostics company Randox was founded in 1982 and specialises in testing services including their hallmark diagnostic arrays. Biopanda, and Fortress Diagnotics in Belfast similarly design diagnostic tests, and Fusion Antibodies specialise in antibody discovery and engineering. These types of industries have proven vital in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almac in Craigavon has specialised in drug development & commercial services since 2001, also including diagnostics, while their Discovery unit at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) is specifically dedicated to therapeutics. More and more start-ups are emerging; the recently set up GenoME Diagnostics specialises in cancer diagnostic tests from blood, and coming soon is an expansion of Avellino Labs, a California-based company specialising in genetic screenings and novel treatments for eye disorders. Axis Bio in Coleraine lead in preclinical contract research.
Of course, NI has a strong agricultural industry and Norbrook Labs has been a world-leading provider of veterinary pharmaceuticals for over 50 years, and the Agri-Food Bioscience Institute (AFBI) in Belfast is a long established research institute in the agriculture and food science sector. There is also local expertise in data analysis, such as Sonrai Analytics, who can process the vast biological data generated from large experiments.
There are two large Universities (QUB and Ulster University), both ranking extremely well in Biological and Pharmaceutical sciences and producing highly skilled graduates every year. Moreover, QUB was recognised as the most effective university at commercialising its research through spin-out companies, relative to funding received (Independent analysis by Octopus Ventures, 2019). Our current spin-out portfolio has a higher combined annual turnover than all other universities apart from Oxford and Cambridge. We have numerous prestigious biological research institutes including the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research, the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, and the Institute for Global Food Security, from which discoveries and collaborations form the basis of many of these commercialisations. Plus, QUB has close links with the local hospitals which facilitates clinical and translational research and collaborations.
These enterprises mostly cluster along a “belt” of eastern cities (see map). Notably underfunded are the western cities like Omagh and Enniskillen, which could thrive with some additional investment.
Our existing frameworks for investment
Some have criticised the “Levelling Up” campaign as vague (it appears undecided which regions shall be targeted and how success be measured). However, NI have an ongoing framework for strategic investment in the form of two new City Deals in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry that were approved last year, which means that we could quickly implement additional funding without too much extra planning, and quickly achieve results.
The City Deals are pots of money to be invested locally, as decided by a unique collaboration between city councils and Higher Education institutions. The UK government and these partners invest strategically in carefully chosen sectors over the next 15 years, and the resulting enterprises then secure further private investment. As CaSE evidenced in their report, local authorities can have a huge role in successful R&D projects and so these existing collaborations are valuable. Moreover, the Derry-Londonderry deal will build more industry and transport links in the north and towards more neglected regions like Omagh.
Importantly, the plans include a specific focus on new infrastructure, which is a proven way of making cities and the surrounding areas more productive, and as CaSE emphasise will help increase research intensity. New infrastructure would be especially useful in Belfast, which has been subject to some bizarre urban planning decisions over the past 50 years, such as the controversial Westlink motorway that was built around 1980 and bulldozed through and annexed a large working class area in west Belfast, and still inhibits traffic flow and access to the city centre today.
Invest in NI
Northern Ireland boasts historic cities, affordable housing, increasing diversity, beautiful countryside and many tourist attractions, making it an attractive place to recruit talent. With a strong existing capacity for R&D, we represent an obvious choice for increasing the overall UK R&D capacity and should be utilised by the central government to help them meet their goals.
Map of Northern Ireland with its largest cities labelled. Bioscience enterprises marked by red spots.
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