Our report shows government labs can be a secret superpower, say Joe Kiely and Daniel Rathbone

While the government still talks of making the UK a “science superpower” and “innovation nation”, the impetus is growing to translate the slogans into something more tangible. The commitment to increase the yearly public R&D budget to £22 billion by 2026-27 is welcome, but research policy is thin on detail and lacks a coherent narrative.

At the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), we believe additional investment should be underpinned by a cross-government science strategy that prioritises coordination and collaboration across and within government, academia and industry. This must include a focus on using all parts of the system, particularly those that are currently under-represented or -valued.

By its own account, the government is falling short on this score. The 2019 Science Capability Review concluded that public sector research establishments (PSREs) and Research Council Institutes (RCIs) are a significant public asset that are not well understood or utilised. In difficult times for the economy, when government efficiency is especially critical, it is imperative the R&D ecosystem makes better use of its investments.

In response to these findings, we spoke to more than 30 PSREs and RCIs from across the UK to better understand their contribution to the research ecosystem. Our report published today, Unlocking the potential of PSREs, sets out ways the government and research sector can better utilise these institutions to drive innovation.

Partners not providers

The diversity of PSREs and RCIs makes it difficult to neatly define their role. Broadly speaking, they are a group of public research bodies doing mission-led R&D—from providing warheads for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, to developing national measurement standards for issues ranging from superfast 5G to cancer treatments. Each RCI is associated with one of the research councils, and each PSRE with a government department.

They differ in size, funding levels, operating models, and their relationship with government and the wider R&D system. But without exception, their value to the R&D ecosystem extends far beyond their research output, including the delivery of critical national capabilities and helping to build a talented and diverse science workforce.

Our report aims to put PSREs and RCIs in the shop window—raising awareness about their strengths and the challenges they face—and spur the sector and government to treat them as strategic partners, not simply service providers.

Funding has a big influence on the ability to build such partnerships. The government’s recent moves to support the broader research ecosystem, including providing the first multi-year science budget since 2015, are positive. However, previous cuts hit PSREs and RCIs disproportionately hard, weakening their contribution to the “science superpower” ambition.

Longer horizons

The government must ensure rising R&D budgets reach all parts of the system, including providing better long-term funding for PSREs. Long-term budgets are critical for research generally, but particularly for PSREs and RCIs, which have significant infrastructure needs. Financial uncertainty hinders their ability to think strategically, slowing or preventing investment in long-term capability.

Alongside more sustainable funding, we also heard that governance needs reform. A high number of reviews and policy changes from central government consume time and result in frequent strategic shifts.  Slow government sign-off on decisions disrupts timelines.

This makes it harder for PSREs and RCIs to plan for the long term, deterring industry partners who might otherwise provide matched funding for projects or programmes. The government should lead the step-change required to give these organisations  the independence, direction and agility to fulfil their potential.

Any new focus on PSREs and RCIs should build on existing work, including the PSRE Value Framework published by the Government Office for Science earlier this year. The framework provides departments with common principles to assess the PSREs they sponsor and make better use of them. The new Office for Science and Technology Strategy also provides an opportunity to support the incorporation of these organisations  into a long-term cross-government science strategy.

Such a strategy is essential to improving efficiencies across the whole research system , which will be critical to delivering tangible improvements to people’s lives and showing taxpayers that R&D provides value for money. PSREs and RCIs have a vital role to play; amid a cost-of-living crisis, the government can ill-afford to ignore their potential.

This article was first published in Research Professional News

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