Location, Location, Location – or Excellence?

28 Mar 2014

I left the recent Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar on Research and Innovation in the UK with plenty of food of thought.  Several of the contributors rightly questioned whether the UK has been strategic enough in its support for research, and the infrastructure necessary to underpin it.  Never far from the surface was the troubling fact that a nation which produces so much excellent academic research remains poor at converting this into jobs and economic growth.  Most vexing, though, was the question of whether funding for research and innovation should be allocated based on excellence alone, or with a view to addressing our economy’s over-reliance on London and the South East.

Sally Howes of the National Audit Office addressed the question of location on an international scale with an illuminating comparison of different countries’ support for business R&D.  It seems the UK prefers a balanced mix of direct (eg grants) and indirect (eg R&D tax credits) support, whereas others tend to prioritise one or the other.  Steven Hill of HEFCE then set the tone for the remainder of the morning, emphasising the ‘E’ in REF (Research Excellence Framework), but hastening to add that its translation into funding is up to the four devolved administrations, and thus location-dependent. 

Despite recent successes for Imperial Innovations, Professor James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College, cautioned that excellence in innovation is no guarantee of financial reward, and it must not be funded at the expense of basic research.  Emily Thomas of the University Alliance took a different tack, pointing out what a small proportion of HEFCE’s funding currently goes to third stream activities.  One got the sense that a minor shift in resource from funding excellent research wherever it may be found (which is to say, mainly in the Golden Triangle) towards funding innovation in the regions would not go amiss for her member institutions.

Will Searle of Axilium stressed the need to improve access to technology, funding and knowledge, and to broaden the number of university collaborations.  Jan Krauss of the Office of the European Commission in London then reminded us that the UK greatly benefits from an emphasis on excellence over location in the distribution of European research funding.  Having secured the largest share of the pie out of the 27 EU nations participating in Framework Programme 7, he anticipated that the UK would attract over 2 billion Euros within the first two years of the Horizon 2020 programme.

We also had two contrasting views on the virtues of scale and consolidation.  Marcus Gibson gave an impassioned defence of the importance of SMEs in driving the UK economy, noting we have only 136 manufacturers employing over 1,000 staff, while America has 2,074, and that 6% of SMES create 54% of new jobs.  Dick Elsy of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, on the other hand, pointed out that the unique value of the new Catapult centres was their ability to take research right through to industrial operation, by virtue of their size.

Alan Welby, Executive Director of Liverpool City LEP, perhaps summed up the excellence vs location question most succinctly, pointing out that places that are successful develop a ‘natural momentum’.  Should public funding simply flow to these places that are already excellent, he asked, thereby reinforcing the status quo, or be used to accelerate growth in other areas, levelling the playing field?  The oft-overlooked role that urban science parks can play in doing the latter was touted by Dr David Hardman, UKSPA Chairman, before Professor Gregson, Vice Chancellor at Cranfield lamented the current trend towards ‘targeted, leveraged’ funding of infrastructure, at the expense of a strategic approach.

It was left to Louise Leong of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry to be a rather lone voice for industry at the session, before Lucia Costanzo of BIS reassured us of the government’s intention to consult widely on national priorities for investing in science and research infrastructure.  She was also sure that the new Science and Innovation Strategy, due out at the end of the year, would take appropriate account of the conflicting demands of excellence and location.  Perhaps, but I can’t imagine that the tension between the two will be resolved any time soon.