UK Regions

UK Regions © European Union – Source: European Parliament

When the government announced its science and innovation strategy in December last year, among familiar principles like ‘Excellence’ and ‘Collaboration’ there was a relative newcomer: ‘Place’. Over the past year, related ideas have continued to develop across government, with devolution, decentralisation and local growth sitting high on the agenda. But how do these ideas all fit together? And what do they mean for UK research?

What’s putting place on the agenda?

There are a few important drivers behind this hot topic. Government is keen to drive economic growth and improve the UK’s productivity, as I discussed in an earlier blog post. They also want to see this growth rebalanced across the UK, away from the dominance of London and the South East, and to push power away from Whitehall.

Government is realising that science and innovation have a role to play in helping them to achieve some of these goals. This means thinking about science and innovation in the context of local growth and devolution, but also looking at the way central research budgets are spent, with a view to maximising the return for local economies on the UK’s investment in the research base.

National science and innovation, and the role of place

The science and innovation strategy was published under a science minister with a clear interest in local growth; Greg Clark was also responsible for the UK’s cities but has now returned to his “dream job” the Department for Communities and Local Government. However since he handed the science baton to Jo Johnson, ‘place’ has shown no sign of slipping down the agenda.

The bulk of science and innovation funding flows into the research base from national pots, through the dual support system. Excellence has long been the key guiding principle for funding decisions, in a system that is set up to fund the best research, wherever it might be. This approach is thought to be a key reason that the UK research base performs so well, but it pays limited attention to ‘place’.

When we look at the geographical distribution of research funding, the picture is uneven and there is some concentration of funding in areas that are relatively prosperous; 42% of R&D in higher education and government is performed in London and the South East.

There is no question that institutions in these regions are producing excellent research, but this situation has prompted some questions from a government keen to maximise the return on its investment across the UK. Is there a risk of funding saturation in top institutions? How do universities, clusters and business interact, and how can this be harnessed to support growth? Are different regions fully aware of their strengths in science and innovation? These are some of the questions that government is thinking about when it talks about ‘place’.

Johnson’s ‘One Nation Science’ approach, set out in a July speech, “aims to promote and protect our reputation for world-class science”, but noting the productivity gains that the golden triangle has seen, he is clear that it means “developing that excellence for the whole country”.

Local science and innovation audits

So how do you start to take ‘place’ into account? Johnson announced plans for a series of local science and innovation audits, which will aim to map the comparative strengths of different regions. Government will ask for expressions of interest from consortia to perform the audits later this year. The aim of the audits is to provide an evidence base, but the results could be used to guide future funding decisions.

Other elements of the research system, such as universities themselves, are also increasingly turning their attention to the role they can play in their local economies. For example, HEFCE is supporting universities to think of themselves as “anchor institutions” and recommendations from the Dowling Review encourage universities to foster collaboration with local businesses.

Devolution, local growth, and the role of science and innovation

Since the Conservatives formed a majority government in May, George Osborne has wasted no time in leading an ambitious devolution agenda from the Treasury, making deals with UK regions to devolve baskets of power and funding in exchange for greater local accountability and, in some places, locally elected mayors.

The first deal was struck with Manchester, which was followed by Cornwall and Sheffield, and there are more deals in the pipeline. Each one is different, and local areas are free to ask for whatever powers they deem appropriate in negotiations with Treasury. Many focus on transport, planning and housing, but with a view to stimulating local growth, science, innovation and skills are starting to feature too. Before the devolution deals, some City deals also included resources for science and innovation, such as the Glasgow and Clyde Valley deal which had support for the life sciences sector, and the Oxford and Oxfordshire City Deal, which focusses on the cities scientific assets.

Other structures like the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs)—which aim to promote economic growth and jobs in local areas—are also interested in research and innovation. All LEPs have university Vice Chancellors on their boards. LEPs in England are will be able to access approximately £1.2bn in matched European structural funds to support their own innovation strategies, but this funding is linked to a requirement for ‘smart specialisation’; the money must be spent in a way that reflects the comparative advantages of different places. Government have been working on smart specialisation in England to support LEPs to draw down this money. Between this work and the local science and innovation audits, government’s understanding of science and innovation strengths across the UK looks set to improve.

Exactly how science and innovation can be harnessed in support of local growth is very much a live question, but we can expect them to continue to feature as the focus on local develops.

Localism for the long term?

Across areas of government policy, devolution, local growth, science and innovation seem set to continue to collide. While the prospect of growth led by science and innovation—at the national and local level—is an exciting one, it raises some big and complicated questions. How can we make excellence-based funding decisions that take account of place? How can science and innovation best support national research priorities, as well as stimulating local growth? In all of this, how do we preserve space and time for curiosity-driven research?

It’s timely for government and the research community to start to address these issues. While uncertainty hangs over the budgets and structures that support research in the run up to the Spending Review, it looks like ‘place’ is one concept we can be sure will still be prominent after 25 November.