Research Innovate Grow: a taster of the research environment in the UK

By Mattia Fosci, Consultant, 6 Jul 2015

Source: RCUK

Last Thursday, for the first time, I attended an event as the sole representative of Research Consulting. Hosted by Research Councils UK (RCUK) and Innovate UK, Research Innovate Grow was an interactive showcase that explored whether, to what extent and how the UK research environment stimulates innovation and drives economic growth in the country.

The event saw the participation of business leaders, entrepreneurs, world-leading researchers, parliamentarians and policymakers and combined a showcase of RCUK-funded academic research with presentations from high-level speakers, including the Minister of State for Universities and Science, the chief executives of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK, and the vice-presidents of Astra Zeneca and Rolls Royce.

Research commercialisation and impact

The impressive line-up was indicative of the main focus of the conference, which in many ways was an assessment of the measures put in place by research funders, institutions and industry to bridge the so-called ‘valley-of-death’ in research commercialisation. The theme ties-in with the recent debates about research impact. Impact is high on RCUK’s criteria for research funding, in response to government’s expectation that research must contribute to nation prosperity. While stressing that ‘blue sky’ and basic research still have an important role to play, RCUK confirmed that the trend towards focusing on science that can drive economic growth is set to continue. Little further clarity was forthcoming, however, as to what impact actually means in this context and how exactly it is measured by the various Research Councils.

The UK research environment is performing well

The presentations highlighted some interesting figures about the research environment in the UK. Professor Jackie Hunter showed that the UK ranked 2nd in the global innovation index and 3rd for quality of scientific output per £ invested, in both cases above the US. UK scientists receive 13% of EU research funding and the country keeps attracting some of the best brains from all over the world. It was also stressed how research has become a truly international sector, with roughly half of UK research articles having been co-authored with international collaborators.

Alongside the merits of academics, many presenters were also keen on stressing that the good performance of the UK research sector was largely driven by leveraging private investments in research commercialisation. One of the standout figures of the day concerned national R&D spending, which is divided as follows:

  • £2.7bn from Research Councils
  • £440m from Innovate UK
  • >£17bn from businesses

Bridging the valley of death

Although the above figures are staggering, they do not tell the whole story. The £440 million spent by Innovate UK arguably carries a much higher weight than the billions spent by industry because they are used to drive research forward to the point where investments can be made at a lower-risk stage. In particular, the role of Innovate UK catapults, research centres, the Knowledge Transfer Network and Innovation Platform Networks were praised. Looking at data from the 9 catapults spread across the country, Innovate UK’s Dick Elsy showed that commercial income exceeded its projected share of funding and that £107 million core funding delivered £290  million of R&D investment and added a projected £1.6 billion to the UK economy.

The role of industry-academia collaborations

Some industries have been playing a leading role in stimulating research, particularly in the engineering and biomedical sectors. One of the key strategies that were identified was the creation of long standing collaborations with HEIs, drawing on the academic talent pool and investing in the professional development of PhD students and young researchers instead of creating large internal R&D centres within such institutions. Dr Mene Pagolas from Astra Zeneca also stressed the need for Universities to ‘play to their strengths’, and suggested that network links between academia and industry are being created by establishing physical ‘hubs’ for research (for instance, Astra Zeneca, Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council are now located in the vicinity of the University of Cambridge’s Biomedical Campus. On the other hand, Rolls-Royce has created a network of 19 technology centres spread across UK universities and is investing $1.25 billion annually.

Industry representatives also highlighted that there is still considerable room for improving the research and innovation environment in the UK, and its contribution to growth and enterprise. Synthase suggested that UK universities hold a considerably higher portion of shares from their spin outs than the US (on average 20-50% compared to 5-10%), and that allowing greater private sector buy-in is increasing the profitability of spin-out companies across the pond. Other areas that can be improved are the use of open data and the commercial application of data mining.

The need for clarity in measuring impact

At times, one had the feeling that all presenters were dancing at the same tune of ‘more business and more money in research’. The significance of the role of academia-industry partnerships in driving innovation is undeniable, and so are its positive implications for both research funding and economic growth. One statistic is that ‘academic brainpower’ has allowed Rolls Royce to file over 600 patents in 2014, compared to the 800 patents filed by the entire UK university network. However, uncertainty about the definition of, and metrics for, measuring impact still raise doubts on how funding priorities will influence academic freedom in the years to come. Clarity in this respect is important to ensure that the drive for economic growth does not trump the importance of blue sky and basic research, and that it does not penalise those disciplines that are perceived to be less ‘business-friendly’.