Together science can. Jo Johnson MPWe hosted a roundtable with the other National Academies – the Academy of Medical Science, British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering – focused on how the government can deliver its manifesto commitment to increase investment in UK R&D to reach 2.4% of GDP within 10 years (i.e. by 2027). The other major parties have made similar commitments – see my blog from Labour conference.

As you might expect, a lot of very similar issues were being raised among the coffee and conference canapés. A couple of interesting themes:

Making the case

With greater investment comes a need/pressure for greater accountability. And in fact, establishing mechanisms for greater accountability can play an important role in securing greater investment. This was one of the arguments mooted for the creation of UK Research and Innovation well spelt out by (Pallab Ghosh in his BBC piece) that creating this structure would assure treasury that investing in research and innovation would be money well spent.

And now that UK Research and Innovation is getting up and running and we have successfully secured greater public investment to the tune of an additional £4.7 billion in science and innovation over a four year period – a commitment that was reaffirmed in the recent Conservative manifesto – heads are turning to the upcoming Budget on 22 November. Two issues in particular:

1) Quality Related funding – this is one part of ‘dual funding’ that has recently been enshrined in legislation as the balanced funding principle. This is allocated based on a Higher Education Institution’s performance in the Research Excellence Framework and it is special because they can do what they want with the money, it is not directed to particular research programmes. (see further explanation of how it works). It includes the Charity Research Support Fund that enables universities to cover the costs of research that charities cannot support from their charitable objectives (AMRC have an explainer). Concerns have been building over the size of this funding stream, and the challenges of demonstrating the value of maintaining a flexible, undirected funding stream within the research funding mix.

2) Delivering 2.4% – public money alone will not be able to deliver this. How can government actions create an innovative ecosystem that encourages greater investment in R&D across the board? The Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank established by Iain Duncan Smith, made a case for frontloading public investment into R&D of £5.62 billion (0.24 per cent of GDP) by 2022.

It’s all about the ecosystem

In addition to direct government investment, there was consensus that creating the right ecosystem will be key to delivering 2.4%. In particular, building a closer association between universities, business, charities and think tanks that could help speed up the process of translation from ideas to applications.

Conversations about ecosystems were closely tied up with those about place. There was lots of discussion about how universities may become ‘stickier’, attracting and retaining people and innovative businesses to invest in an area and expanding external links as anchor institutions. This picked up on the concept of agglomeration (the Industrial Strategy Commission’s first report Laying the Foundations is good on this). Discussion focused on government’s role in supporting agglomeration without harming existing strengths and how they can do this. Mechanisms mooted included the Science and Innovation Audits for their role in helping identify areas with capacity for excellence that government could help realise and the National Productivity Investment Fund – proposed in the Conservative manifesto and generally seen as a replacement to EU structural funds – as a possible mechanism for ‘place-based’ investment to grow these ecosystems. Making a robust, evidence-based case for investment was the common theme.

Running through all this was a strong recognition that there is no ecosystem without the people in it. The role of individuals with the skills to innovate and translate was much discussed – an issue that the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology touched on when they provided advice last year on how to encourage more undergraduates to start innovative enterprises. And the matter of perceptions loomed large – both in how we can attract more young people to consider studying STEM subjects and pursuing careers in this space, and the need to address uncertainty so that highly mobile, skilled people can make informed choices over where they work and who they collaborate with going forward.