This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Giles Carden, Chief of Staff at Lancaster University.
the Upgrade UK The white paper was finally launched on February 2, 2022. It proposes a comprehensive ‘systems change’ to the way government works, with the aim of leveling the UK.
At the heart of the new policy development and implementation plan are 12 quantifiable national missions to be achieved by 2030. These missions are proposed to be cross-jurisdictional and cross-societal in their efforts. Universities will have an important role to play in a number of missions.
Undoubtedly, the most striking title for universities is Mission 2:
By 2030, domestic public investment in research and development outside of the Greater South East will increase by at least 40% and by at least one-third over the spending review period, this funding additional public seeking to leverage at least twice as much private sector investment over the long term to drive innovation and productivity growth.
MP Neil O’Brien, minister for Leveling Up, chairman of the Number 10 Policy Board and co-founder of the centre-right think tank Onward, has long been a supporter of the policy of geographical redistribution of research funds. In February 2021, Onward published an article titled Improve innovation. One of the main recommendations of the report was to dedicate the increase in public investment in R&D through the 2.4% of GDP target to projects outside the “Golden Triangle”.
This would represent a £9bn annual increase in R&D funding for lagging regions by 2027 and, according to the government’s own modeling, could boost UK productivity by 3-4% by 2027 and by 8 to 12% by 2040, compared to the current distribution.
The policy may also be a legacy of the Dominic Cummings era and is underpinned by the policy efforts of Professor Richard Jones of the University of Manchester. Jones, who is known to have advised number 10, along with Tom Forth, published an interesting analytical report with the NESTA innovation foundation in 2020 titled The missing 4 billion pounds. The report commented on regional disparities in R&D spending and highlighted that London and its Oxford and Cambridge sub-regions account for 46% of total public and charitable R&D spending.
By contrast, the North East of England, Yorkshire and the Humber, Wales and Northern Ireland fare poorly, with low levels of innovation spending in absolute terms, both by public and private funders.
This new policy of geographical redistribution of R&D funding raises a series of questions:
- How to define the “Great South-East”? My brief research suggests that the implied geographic area includes a number of major universities in the home counties and just beyond, not just those in the “Golden Triangle”. However, it should be noted in the Technical Annex on Mission and Parameters that a specific statement on the funding of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): “In addition, the Department of Health and Human (DHSC) will increase National Institute for Health Research investment outside of London, Oxford and Cambridge”.
- How will the policy affect the longstanding goal of successive governments to fund research excellence wherever it is found?
- It is clear that the policy will apply to UK Research and Innovation and the National Institute for Health Research, but will it also apply to funding sources from the Advanced Research and Invention Agency and Research England (quality related research)?
- How will the new regional distribution financing model work in practice?
- Will major mapped funding bodies, such as Wellcome and Leverhulme trusts, be persuaded to align with government plans?
For universities outside the Greater South East, the policy represents an opportunity to further develop key areas of activity. Lancaster University has recently entered into a strategic relationship with the National Cyber Force (NCF) of the Ministry of Defence, the latter is referenced in the white paper. The NCF will be based in Samlesbury, South Ribble, Lancashire, and will serve as an example where policy alignment could produce real leveling benefits. The choice of its location falls within the framework of the pillar “Spreading opportunities and improving public services” of the political program of the White Paper. It is hoped that R&D investments will follow, thus aligning with Mission 2 of the White Paper.
Another flagship policy of the White Paper is the launch of three pilot innovation accelerators in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and the Glasgow City-Region. This initiative will test whether strong local governance, leadership and the ability to leverage private investment are successful in driving innovation in these regions. If the three-year pilot is successful, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will consider rolling it out further.
Other political developments are also underway. The independent review of the UK’s research, development and innovation (RDI) organizational landscape, led by Sir Paul Nurse, examines the imbalances in the current composition of high-performing RDI organizations across the UK . This report will provide another important opportunity to make recommendations on how Mission 2 of the White Paper will be implemented in practice. Recommendations from the review are expected in the spring of this year.
The new R&D investment strategy announced in the White Paper is undoubtedly good news for universities outside the Greater South East. But universities in the Greater South East will likely fear the leveling up policy will divert investment from their world-class centers of excellence, arguing it will impact the UK’s ability to be a science superpower. How will this potential tension play out in the long run? Only time will tell.
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