Birmingham Town Hall

Birmingham Town Hall. Photo credit: Christophe Finot CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of us here at the Royal Society have spent much of September and October joining the three main parties on a tour of UK. First out was the Labour conference in Manchester, and last week we were in Birmingham for the Conservative Party conference.

I joined a roundtable discussion of the UK’s role in research and innovation – are we ‘leaders or followers?’ The breakfast was hosted jointly by ourselves, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences. The last couple of years have seen the Academies working together on promoting research and innovation as a central part of Government policy.

Around the table were a range of representatives from across the research community, including industry, charities, academia and funders. We also had the pleasure of welcoming two ministers to the table: Greg Clark, Minister for Universities, Science and Cities and George Freeman, Minister for Life Sciences.

We know research is important – so where do we go from here?

There was consensus about the value of research, as well as of the importance of the research base. Both ministers emphasised that its value is well understood at the highest levels. They referenced the fact that despite being through some of the most austere times in recent memory, the Government has proved its commitment through the ring-fencing the science budget.

However, the participants were clear that it is important to not be lulled into a false sense of security. We are aware that UK punches above its weight when it comes to its research performance, whilst its investment levels lag behind international competition. Doubts were expressed about whether the UK can continue to keep pace with other countries.

Graph: How does UK investment in R&D compare globally?

It is hard to predict what consensus over the value of research will translate to in concrete terms but the feeling around the table seemed to be that it is now more important than ever for the government to step up its commitment to research.

Good things come to those who do well

Exploring how the community can help the Government to continue to strengthen the case for science, of particular interest were models for how to best attract private money through public investment.

In a similar vein, many ideas around the table centred on ideas of rewarding positive moves. If the Government is willing to invest money, so will industry. If the UK provides long-term stability, then researchers and industry alike will have increased confidence for future investment. If the UK can continue to excel in research, then it will attract the most talented people and the most successful companies. If there is a supportive environment for smaller research companies, innovation will stay in the UK.

Steps in this area such as the patent box and R&D tax credits were applauded. It was noted however that there may be a case for a more nuanced supportive framework. Blanket categorisation across sectors, for example by company turnover which may vary considerably for a small company in different sectors, might mean that some companies are unable to access support that could be valuable for them.

Attendees were treated to a success story from Concrete Canvas, a university spin-out that has seen a 100 per cent annual growth for the past six years and is now marketing its products in over 40 countries. What became clear during the conversation was that many thought the traditional university tech transfer is now an outdated model. Shifts should be made towards long-term support, collaboration and partnerships.

Working together

A key theme during the morning was the importance of collaboration in all its guises. A partnership between Unipart and Coventry University for the newly opened £32 million Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering illustrated why the sum of partnerships is more valuable than its parts. Not only does it provide a nexus for resources and expertise, but can also provide stability and opportunity for forward-planning in uncertain times.

Cross-sector and interdisciplinary work seemed to be high on both Ministers’ agenda. This is something that is welcome, with our president Sir Paul Nurse opening  the Discovery Centre (for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research) in Dundee  last week, as well as  leading work for the Francis Crick Institute due to open next year which will encourage government, charity and industry partnerships

Next steps

The government’s science and innovation strategy – which we provided input into earlier this year – is due to be published alongside the Autumn statement in December.  Drafting is ongoing and both Ministers welcomed the views of the community to inform this and outlined their ambition to provide a solid long-term commitment to science.

And looking further ahead as we begin to prepare for next year’s general election, the Royal Society is working with the other academies to publish a pre-election statement.