UK science in the balance

C&I Issue 3, 2017

Article 50 has been triggered. And with it come many questions abound on the future of research and innovation in the UK as the country enters a period of inevitable change and uncertainty. Will Brexit open up opportunities for collaborative innovation beyond the EU or will it dampen it? Could Brexit be the catalyst the country needs to exploit and nurture its strong and internationally renowned science base, and importantly encourage world class talent to come, not leave, the UK?

As a recent Westminster Higher Education forum of academics, industrialist and policymakers highlighted, inevitably there will be risks and opportunities that come with this single historical event.

The government’s industrial strategy is the focus of Theresa May’s plan to shape a productive new nation. There is a strong emphasis on local and regional growth in the strategy, and the importance of developing research–business partnerships that cross disciplines as witnessed by the establishment of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and a new Industry Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). The ISCF is expected to support dozens of high impact technologies in which the UK has ‘immense capabilities’, from self-driving cars to medical therapies, that could lead to long term productivity and economic growth. And under the leadership if Sir Mark Walport, UKRI will bring together the seven Research Councils, the research arm from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and Innovate UK for a more strategic approach to research and innovation funding. ‘The government is looking for industry-led innovation powered by multi-disciplinary research and business–academic partnerships,’ explained Kevin Baughan, Innovate UK’s chief development officer. ‘The goal is to create industries that are fit for the future,’ he said.

On the positive side, there has been a huge growth in academic-industry collaborations over the past 20 years. According to Martin Szomszor, consultant data scientist at Digital Science, the amount of collaboration being done with partners in the EU as a percentage has been steadily increasing over this period from around 50% to 60%, and increasing more with Germany and France than with the US. With these collaborations though comes large amounts of EU funding, the UK has been a net beneficiary of some £2bn from Horizon 2020 for example, so clearly alternatives may need to sought in the future.

But if intellectual property is the currency of innovations, as James Cross, patent attorney at Maucher Jenkins explained, then the UK has no cause for complacency. Data from the European Patent Office, he said, finds that Britain is languishing quite far behind Sweden, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland in terms of number of European patent applications filed per billion of GDP in non-service industries’. In addition to policy that addresses innovation, Cross said the UK also needs to address IP creation, at least in terms of patents. ’If we want a return on R&D investment, that return is intellectual property,’ he said.

What does this all mean for universities? Faye Taylor, head of programmes at University Alliance, a group of 24 business-engaged universities, explained, ‘Universities need to be at the heart of turning investment into science research and innovation into growth and prosperity,’ she said. They are also fundamental to developing the skills needed not just at the higher level but across the whole skills ecosystem, including life-long learning.

Universities also have significant economic, cultural and social impact in a local regions, and the ability to stay fairly constant in a very changeable policy environment. They are often in a good position to convene partners, lead coalitions tackle socioeconomic challenges. ’The industrial strategy is only going to be able to be able to make the best use of these institutions if it recognises and supports the full range of activities that universities undertake in their regional economies,’ she said. By way of example, she pointed to UK steel as one of the casualties of globalisation and stressed the important part Teesside University is now playing through its Digital City initiative to develop digital industries, creating start-ups, jobs and providing the space and the financial support for these businesses to grow. In addition as Faye pointed out: ‘HE itself is a major sector, bringing in £8m a year in student fees and the related spend, and we need to make sure that immigration policies allow this to continue to thrive.’

But the UK has more to offer, and gain, from its ‘research assets’, that go beyond the ’great’ international collaborations, according to Tim Hart managing consultant at Isis Enterprise, a business group within technology transfer company, Oxford University Innovation. His own experience at Isis suggests there are game-changing technologies in developing environments in emerging economies, citing battery technology from Russia, new rice varieties from the Philippines and robotics technology from South Africa as examples. The UK has ‘the experience, knowledge and resources – infrastructural, intellectual and financial – to help and support these countries translate the research to impact health and wealth of society,’ he said. As well as establishing new opportunities for the UK, in countries such as Argentina and Thailand, for example, Hart believes this investment would have the added advantage of creating more diverse knowledge based economies and a more balanced and robust global economy.

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