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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Co-location of researchers: challenges and opportunities before and after Brexit

“International collaboration and mobility is integral to life as an active researcher across all disciplines and at all career stages.” British Academy, 2017

Collaboration is a core part of the work of researchers. In recent decades, growing numbers of researchers have taken advantage of improved mobility and support from policymakers to travel and work with others in a variety of disciplines.

The benefits of co-location

So it was interesting to read a recent toolkit on co-location of researchers, published by What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth, which looked at interventions that encourage the co-location of researchers, and considered the effectiveness of policies that specifically encourage co-location with the objective of increasing the quantity and quality of scientific output.

The toolkit’s review of evidence found that:

  • Co-location can raise the quality of research.
  • Spillovers may exist between researchers in different academic fields or commercial sectors, but the greatest positive effects of co-location occur for similar activities.
  • Science park co-location impacts positively on firm-level patenting of research, but spillover effects may die away rapidly with distance.
  • Temporary co-location (such as conferences and workshops) can also be effective in inducing collaboration and innovation.
  • Previously collaborating labs continue to work together, although the quality of research suffers with separations.

Co-location in practice

Co-location can occur within a national or international context. A good example of international research mobility in action has been highlighted in a paper published by RESEARCHconnect, which provides information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK research community.

Fifteen partners from thirteen countries, including the USA and Canada, have joined forces to improve the capacities for marine-based research in the ice-covered Arctic Ocean. The ARICE (Arctic Research Icebreaker Consortium) project aims to better coordinate the existing polar research fleet, to offer scientists access to six research icebreakers, and to collaborate closely with the maritime industry.

For researchers, project sponsors and hosts, the importance of face-to-face collaboration on projects such as ARICE cannot be overestimated. As Dr Chris Coey, Research Development Support Officer, Division of Research and Knowledge Exchange at the University of Salford, told RESEARCHconnect:

“The advantages of international mobility are, for researchers, access to prestige networks, resources and infrastructure not available at home. Reputations are burnished, arguably in part through mobility itself, collaborations are established or reinforced and, publications and other outputs are achieved. Metrics show that these international collaborations are higher profile and higher quality.”

Of course, arranging and managing co-location can be challenging, particularly when working across languages, cultures and disciplines. And although technology provides alternative ways of exchanging information, the evidence suggests that teleconferencing is no substitute for co-location. A 2017 study of the role of international collaboration and mobility in research noted that “travel was seen to be important in building international collaborations, by helping develop stronger relationships and a broader understanding of each other’s strengths and interests.”

Co-location after Brexit

But while collaboration – particularly international collaboration – has become a key aspect of research, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is causing uncertainty in the research community. The EU has been a significant source of research funding, and Brexit is now forcing researchers to consider alternatives.

A 2017 report from Digital Science Consultancy for Universities UK explored the challenges and opportunities facing UK research in the post-Brexit landscape. The authors noted that international collaborative partnerships in research with other EU states make up the largest pool of collaborators with UK research:

“Research undertaken with EU partners like Germany and France is growing faster than with other countries – hence while it is vital that the UK takes every opportunity to be truly global in their outlook, the importance of collaboration with EU partners should not be underestimated.”

At the same time, the report suggested that the UK should be developing new networks and funding arrangements that support collaboration with major research powers outside of Europe.

Regardless of access to EU programmes, enhanced international collaboration could be facilitated by either agreeing partner funding or at least avoiding ‘double jeopardy’ through, for example, a coordinated application process at agency level.”

Speaking to RESEARCHConnect, Dr Chris Coey also highlighted UK sources that provide an alternative to EU funding for international research:

“…this isn’t just the Research Councils but also the larger and more prestigious charitable sources such as Wellcome and the British Academy.”

 Final thoughts

As the What Works toolkit explains, co-location is one of the methods used by policymakers to help encourage the generation and diffusion of new ideas. It enables researchers to share access to expensive equipment, forge links, or simply observe – and learn from – each other.

As the UK prepares to leave the EU, research bodies and researchers themselves will be looking anxiously at the impact of Brexit, while continuing to forge strong partnerships at home and overseas.


RESEARCHconnect is the Idox group’s funding service providing information on thousands of funding opportunities dedicated to the UK and wider European research community. Focused on researchers at all levels of academia – from undergraduates to senior career researchers – and also including a spectrum of funding opportunities for universities and research institutes, the service offers a comprehensive one-stop-shop of funding information.