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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Open access is rapidly rising but is it succeeding?

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Image by PLoS via Creative Commons

In an increasingly digital world where accessibility is a common goal, it is no surprise that open access (OA) publishing is increasing at a rapid pace. For UK research, there has been particularly notable growth in OA adoption. In 2016, 37% of UK outputs (25% globally) were freely available immediately on publication, up from 20% in 2014. This figure reached 54% within 12 months of publication – the first time the 50% OA barrier has been breached for UK articles in the Scopus database (Elsevier’s peer-reviewed abstract and citation database).

These are among the findings of a recent report from Universities UK (UUK), Monitoring the transition to open access, which illustrates the growth in OA and its implications. While the advancement of OA is generally seen as a positive outcome, this transition is not without its challenges.

What is open access?

OA is fundamentally about making research outputs freely accessible to all with limited restrictions with regard to reuse.

There are two main routes to OA, as highlighted in the UUK report:

  • Gold or immediate OA – this refers to articles published in an OA form in a journal, allowing immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. Publishers can recoup their costs in various ways, including through payments from authors called article processing charges (APCs), or through advertising, donations or other subsidies.
  • Green OA – this refers to the posting of a version of the published article so that it is accessible via a website, institutional or subject repository, scholarly collaboration network or other service. Access to the publication can either be granted immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

OA articles can also be published in hybrid journals which are subscription-based but provide some articles as OA, usually for a fee. According to the UUK report, more than half of UK articles in 2016 were published in hybrid journals, the proportion of which were published on immediate Gold OA terms was 28% – up from just 6% in 2012.

Growth

The numbers and proportions of both OA and hybrid journals have continued to rise, while the proportion of subscription-only journals has fallen. The number of articles published on immediate Gold OA terms is also rising, with a high level of take-up in the UK of hybrid OA options. Particularly notable findings from the report include:

  • the proportion of titles published globally offering immediate OA rose from under 50% in 2012 to just over 60% in 2016; and to nearly 70% for journals in which UK authors have published;
  • the proportion of UK-authored articles published on immediate Gold OA terms rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, an annual growth rate of over 30% sustained throughout the period;
  • the global proportion of subscription-based articles accessible in some version, on Green OA terms, within 24 months of publication via a non-publisher website, repository or elsewhere, rose from 19% in 2014 to 38% in 2016, while the UK proportion rose from 23% to 48%;
  • OA articles are downloaded on average between twice and four times as much as non-OA articles; and in the UK, where the numbers of full-text articles in UK repositories increased by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016, the number of article downloads more than doubled from 6 to 12 million.

The rapid rate of growth in the UK appears to demonstrate the effects of policies to promote and support OA. The government has long been committed to the transition to OA, particularly since the Finch Report, and these figures show that the UK is world leading in “a significant global movement which is fundamentally changing the way that research is conceived, conducted, disseminated and rewarded.” (UUK)

Rising costs

Most would argue such growth is a positive outcome but the rise in OA has also contributed to other issues, such as the transitional costs to universities and research funders. The findings show that costs are also rising, and at a rate significantly above inflation. The mean average APC payment rose by 16% between 2013 and 2016, compared with a rise of 5% in the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

And the number of APCs paid has grown rapidly, with the ratio between subscription and hybrid APC expenditure falling from roughly 19:1 in 2013 to 6:1 by 2016. There is evidence of various offsetting deals, although these vary significantly and can be complex. The majority of known funding for APCs has however been provided by UK funders. Therefore tools that help universities identify and manage funding, such as RESEARCHconnect, could become even more important.

Concerns have also been raised around the financial implications for learned societies that publish academic journals. Although the findings show that publishing revenues have risen steadily over the period (18%), publishing expenditure has risen by 27%, resulting in falling margins.

A mixed picture is highlighted in terms of societies’ overall financial health, with a sharp rise in the number reporting a loss, although some of the most recent losses arose from strategic decisions or exceptional items. Of course, OA is not the only factor and the wider economic and political uncertainties are recognised as particular risks.

To mitigate the financial risks, societies are diversifying their income streams which could strengthen their role. But despite publishing margins being under increasing pressure, the report identified no evidence of systemic risk to UK learned societies or their broader financial sustainability from OA.

Final thoughts

In terms of the aim of policy in the UK to achieve a shift towards OA, the fast-paced growth can be considered a success. However, as the UUK report shows, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed.

According to the Chair of the UUK Open Access Coordination Group, the continued engagement of all stakeholders will be important “to ensure that the transition to open access is maintained, is financially sustainable, and that the benefits to research and to society are maximised.”


RESEARCHconnect is Idox’s latest funding service which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community. It supports universities, research institutions and research-intensive companies across Europe in identifying and disseminating R&D funding. In the current economic climate, there is increasing pressure to exploit alternative funding sources and RESEARCHconnect ensures that global funding opportunities will not be missed. Find out more.

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Innovation districts – the way forward for sustainable growth?

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By Heather Cameron

“Innovation is the lifeblood of any society or any economy” Julian Beer, Birmingham City University

Innovation districts, first coined by Bruce Katz and colleagues at the Brookings Institute in the US, are a recent trend in urban planning that is on the rise across the globe.

They represent a move away from the traditional corporate campuses, socially isolated in out-of-town sites, consisting of clusters of innovative research facilities in working areas that are also liveable, accessible by foot or by bike, and have good transport links.

The move towards these innovation hubs reflects the growing importance of the geography of innovation to urban areas.

Driving economic growth and regeneration

According to the judges and partners of the inaugural Lambert Smith Hampton Enterprise Award, consisting of leading figures from the property industry, innovation districts can drive economic growth and ensure the Northern Powerhouse and UK-wide devolution are successful.

The Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID) Partnership was selected as the winner of the £15,000 Award, the proposals of which were highlighted as an example of how developing industry clusters can deliver economic growth, employment and community regeneration. They also called for the AMID Partnership to be considered as a model for regional development.

The AMID Partnership consists of The University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Harworth Estates, Sheffield Business Park, Sheffield City Council and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

This integrated approach utilises newly devolved powers and funding for the greatest economic and social impact.

The role of The University of Sheffield and its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in driving productivity improvements and innovation has been recognised in three independent reports.

One of the reports, Making it: the advanced manufacturing economy in Sheffield and Rotherham, notes that “R&D and industry-led innovation in Sheffield-Rotherham has been driven by the AMRC and led by the University of Sheffield, a UK leader in advanced manufacturing and research.”

Another notable innovation district in the UK is Corridor Manchester. Developed over the past 10 years, it is a partnership between the city council, local universities and regional hospitals that supports nearly 12% of the city’s workforce and generates £3bn GVA per annum. The recently opened £61m National Graphene Institute, which is to explore new commercial uses for graphene technology, has been described as “the perfect example of innovation-district potential.”

Growth in collaboration

Such university-industry partnerships are becoming increasingly common as a way for higher education institutions (HEIs) to enhance their research, create new research and development opportunities and increase revenues.

Robert Tijssen, chair of science and innovation studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has stated that “university-industry connectivity is now the third mission of a university, next to teaching and training and research.

The most recent Higher education – business and community interaction survey shows a continuing increase in the exchange of knowledge between UK HEIs and the public, private and third sectors.  Between 2012-13 and 2013-2014 these interactions increased in volume by 10.1%, the value of which was £300 million – increasing from £3.6 billion to £3.9 billion.

At a time of reduced government funding, it should be no surprise that such collaboration is continuing to increase.

A recent Universities UK report highlighting the extensive economic value of universities states that they have an important part in supporting businesses to drive product, process and service innovation.  And in terms of policy implications, it argues that:

any policy aiming to promote the long-term economic success of the UK needs to have universities at its heart, recognising the breadth, complexity and significance of their contribution and the need for stable, continued support to enable further impact.”

Barriers to innovation

Despite the wide recognition of the value of such partnerships, it has been argued that the UK’s fiscal policy of austerity acts as a barrier to industry innovation.

According to Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute for Education:

As long as the rewards for investment in financial assets are higher than the rewards for investment in knowledge-intensive industry innovation, the latter will be neglected… This is a serious problem in the UK economy, where finance generating finance often seems to be the main game.

Way forward

Nevertheless, it would seem likely that the rise in innovation districts will continue due to the organic nature of their growth, as highlighted by Katz and colleagues. Economic and demographic forces will continue to change the way people live and work.

Brookings has called for local decision-makers, global companies and financial institutions, and government to ‘unleash’, ‘embrace’, ‘support and accelerate’ innovation districts. The result: “a step toward building a stronger, more sustainable and more inclusive economy.”


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous post on science and innovation

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