Former Universities Minister sets out plan to increase R&D funding in the UK

The relationship between the Government, the private sector and universities in promoting R&D and the commercialisation of research is explored in a new report by former Universities Minister and Visiting Professor at King’s College London, David Willetts.

The report, published by The Policy Institute at King’s College London, sets out his personal view of the current state of research funding policy. While welcoming cross-party plans to raise R&D spending from 1.7% of the UK’s GDP to 2.4%, the report proposes a series of measures and guiding principles that would help Government to both achieve this ambition and further strengthen the UK’s research sector.

Boosting R&D funding

The plan identifies priority areas of additional funding, in particular the need for a ‘substantial increase’ in the core budgets of the Research Councils, covering a wide range of disciplines.

However, the report goes further and suggests that the current political consensus regarding the need for more funding for R&D should also be used to tackle some of the nation’s biggest and longest-running research challenges, particularly applying and commercialising research. Overall, the system should be well-balanced between the pursuit of fundamental understanding and of usefulness.

Willetts argues that some of the UK’s problems in applying research (in comparison to other countries) arise because much more of our research is conducted in universities where the incentives work against successful commercialisation. This includes the emphasis on academic publication as a measure of performance.

At the core of the report is a 12-point plan designed to boost British science and technology and ultimately attain more value from it.

University research:

  • Fund the full economic cost of a research project instead of the current 80%.
  • Announce that counting start-ups is no measure of a university’s performance in promoting innovation.
  • Discourage universities from going for such big stakes in companies created by their academic staff, which is currently a barrier to private investment.
  • Remove the requirement that all eligible researchers should be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework – to boost practical applied research and cut bureaucracy in academies.

Non-university research

  • Create a pot of public funding to support catapults, technology parks and other non-university institutes.
  • Restore greater freedoms to public research establishments.

Key technologies

  • Immediately launch government investment in key technologies.
  • Create a new technology strategy based on expert horizon scanning for new technologies.

Business

  • Boost Innovate UK’s SMART awards budget by around £300 million a year.
  • Better align bodies such as Innovate UK, the British Business Bank and Business Growth Fund so that new technology companies can access funding schemes more easily.
  • Insist that 1% of public procurement budgets for large infrastructure programmes is used to promote innovation.
  • Simplify Research Council grant processes and speed up how UKRI investments are reviewed and approved.

A strategic approach to innovation

The report also examines Conservative Party proposals to introduce a British version of the American DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The history of ARPA/DARPA in the US has been characterised by an approach which is free from the constraints of peer review and more able to support risky projects with a significant chance of failure. The report outlines how such a body might work in the UK, and states that lessons could be learned from how confidently US funders track and invest in technology compared with a relative lack of confidence and doubts about the UK’s capabilities that exists within the UK.

Promoting the UK’s research community

Launching the report David Willetts said: “These proposals are intended to promote one of Britain’s greatest single intellectual and cultural achievements – the vigour and creativeness of our research community. From producing Nobel Prize winners to supporting technicians maintaining and developing the kit which makes their discoveries possible, excellent R&D underpins Britain’s distinctive and wide-ranging research base. But we need to ensure extra funding is well-spent, enabling us to harness research to create wealth and prosperity to boost our living standards in the future. This 12-point plan shows how we could achieve that.”


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