Science Minister Chris Skidmore sets out his vision for how to level up research and development so that it benefits every corner of the UK at the opening of the Durham University Teaching and Learning Centre:
It’s great to be in Durham, where I’ve had the opportunity of meeting the senior team here today, and hearing more about what the university is doing in their region, as well as the work happening to get women into STEM careers.
This month, I will have had the opportunity already to visit Airbus in Bristol, ODI Leeds, and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield, as well as the universities of Bolton, Manchester, Newcastle, York, Teesside, Sunderland and Northumbria. Next week I’ll be visiting the universities of Leicester, Northampton and Nottingham.
Ever since I was first appointed as Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, I’ve been determined to champion the excellent work on research and innovation taking place around the country, both by universities and industry.
And it’s with this theme in mind, that I wanted to speak to you today about the government’s future priorities for science, research and innovation.
No one can doubt the Prime Minister’s determination to invest in science and technology as a key priority for this administration.
Boris Johnson has committed to doubling the public R&D budget over 5 years, a giant leap towards meeting our pledge of spending 2.4% of GDP, both public and private, on R&D by 2027.
This represents the single biggest increase in public R&D spending by any government in the post-war period. And at this key juncture in our history, it perhaps represents the most significant increase ever.
Let us be clear why we are doing this. It is because, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated, we believe the future of the UK’s prosperity – as we leave the EU, and chart our own course for the 2020s and beyond – lies in making our nation a global science superpower.
Our future lies in those cutting-edge ideas, advanced technologies and rewarding new jobs that will power our economy and transform our society.
We recognise that, if we are to meet the global challenges that are facing us in this, the third decade of the twenty first century, the solution to some of our core ‘missions’ such as reducing our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero by 2050 – which I signed into law as Interim Energy Minister last summer – will be found in investing in R&D, new technologies and our world leading scientific expertise.
But this isn’t just about the money, or how it is spent. Where we choose to invest is of equal, critical importance. The Prime Minister has declared that this is a ‘One Nation’ government, committed to ‘levelling up’, so that every corner of the UK can benefit from its determination to share our future prosperity.
For science and innovation, we too need a ‘One Nation’ strategy for R&D.
2,500 days: no time for North versus South
Already, this government has begun to make significant investment across the UK. Consider our ‘Net Zero’ mission alone. We have won our bid to host the prestigious COP26 climate forum in Glasgow, the Offshore Renewable Catapult based in Northumberland and Glasgow grew its income by almost a half last year, and the Drax power station in Yorkshire begun its journey, driven by innovation in Carbon Capture and Storage, to be the world’s first carbon negative power plant.
Through the National Productivity Investment Fund, we are investing in the R&D, as well as national and local infrastructure, that will be crucial for economic growth. We are investing in our productivity at the highest sustained level in 40 years.
This already includes an additional £7 billion in R&D since 2016. New initiatives such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Strength in Places Fund have been established, and amazing new projects are already underway.
From the £80 million automotive battery industrialisation centre in Coventry that will allow companies to quickly develop their capabilities to manufacture batteries and get them to market, to the £10 million Northern Pathology Imaging Collaborative in Leeds, which will use artificial intelligence to develop more intelligent analysis of medical imaging and diagnose diseases at an earlier stage.
And we have continued to invest in successful schemes like the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, which last year invested in world-leading projects all over the UK, from the University of Leicester’s METEOR centre which will help us revolutionise satellite design and production, to the York Global Initiative for Safe Autonomy, which will address the challenges faced by the world-wide introduction of robotics and connected autonomous systems.
Yet we also know that during this time, we have seen the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ continue to benefit disproportionately from public investment, compared with other regions of the UK.
Transparency in research funding is essential to begin to tackle this long-standing issue.
That’s why I have, as science and research minister, commissioned UKRI to publish new data today on how their investments are balanced across the regions. This is a first step on the way to greater transparency of where our money is going.
Read the full UKRI data: Regional distribution of funding for research and business
Better understanding, and a richer evidence base, will be critical to achieving our levelling up mission.And when we look at the data published by UKRI today, the headline stat is that 52% of the UK’s public investment into R&D goes to London, the South East, and East of England regions.
UKRI analysis: R&D Activity by Region 2017-18 (Footnote 1)
|Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD)
|Gross Expenditure on R&D (GERD) %
|Business Enterprise R&D (BERD)
|Business Enterprise R&D (BERD)%
|NUTS 1 Region
|East of England
|Yorkshire and The Humber
Source:GERD/BERD figures: ONS, Gross domestic expenditure on research and development, by region, UK
When I spoke last July about how we can increase R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP, I stated then, as I do again today, that we must ensure that our investments benefit the country as a whole, not just parts of it.
But, as I argued in that speech, if we look at the North East, for example, the level of R&D investment per person is way under half that of an equivalent Londoner.
And we know from the work that Richard Jones and Tom Forth have done, that it is the public investment that is lagging behind the private.
Analysis by Richard Jones: comparison of public to private R&D investment by region, per capita
Source: Used with permission from Jones, R. (2019) A Resurgence of the Regions: rebuilding innovation capacity across the whole UK. Working paper. Additional credit: Tom Forth, Eurostat.
In London, the government puts in 78 pence for every £1 of private money. But for every £1 of private investment in the West Midlands, the public contributes only 20 pence.
The data published by UKRI today will confirm this, and shows just how concentrated research funding has become.
For instance, in 2017 to 2018, London universities were awarded over £10,000 per researcher in QR funds. The figure is about half that size in the West Midlands or the North West.
UKRI analysis: Quality Related (QR) Research, Postgraduate Research Funding (PGR) and Research Excellence Grant (REG), academic year 2017/18
|NUTS 1 Region
|QR, PGR and REG Research Funding Allocated2017/18, AY, £m
|QR, PGR and REG Research Funding per researcher approximation (£)
|QR, PGR and REG Research Funding per research active university (£m)
|East of England
|Yorkshire and The Humber
Tom Forth, a data scientist who I met in Leeds last week, has long argued that this is a grave misallocation of R&D spending, and that this misallocation is an important reason why the UK has done so badly at boosting economic growth in its poorest regions. (Source: Forth, T. (2018). Boosting R&D).
Now that we are increasing public investment into R&D, we have a chance to address these disparities, and I want us to seize it. We must ensure that more public R&D funding is being driven to places where, despite historic under-investment from the state, private investment has been flowing freely, and where it is ready to flow even faster.
Let me assure you that we make no apologies for investing in research excellence, and in our world leading research capabilities. We will continue to do so, as our commitment to existing excellence, and maintaining existing capabilities, remains undiminished.
Let me also state, for it is important to be clear, our historic commitment to double R&D funding means that we can end the zero-sum game of science funding.
We are not going to disinvest in our existing research and innovation ecosystem, created over decades of sustained and careful management.
In a sense, the ‘golden triangle’ narrative is profoundly an unhelpful one: placing geographic constraints on communities. Because the truth is that researchers themselves have always been good at collaborating across the country.
Just last week I was hearing about the work that Leeds university’s Bragg Centre is doing on advanced functional materials with Imperial College.
And we need only look at the Henry Royce Institute, with the hub at the University of Manchester, and spokes at the founding partners – the universities of Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College London, as well as UKAEA and NNL.
So there is simply no room for a false, north-versus-south narrative, that cuts against the grain of what is working at the moment – the principle of subsidiarity, which we need to continue to foster. Because we need to put in place a true ‘one nation’ R&D strategy to complement, and ultimately fulfil, our 2.4% commitment – which is just over 2,500 days away.
Those 2,500 days will pass quickly.
We therefore need ALL of the UK pulling together, working at pace, both government, academia, and industry, if we are to reach 2.4%.
We also need to ensure, that our priorities are equally aligned, and that we are agreed upon a single direction of travel, a strategy that seeks not to divide, but to strengthen collaboration, to build networks, and to increase capacity and capability, wherever it exists.
Seeking to recognise where we are already world leaders, and where we have the potential to become world leading for the future.
That’s why we commissioned UKRI to publish their infrastructure opportunities report, which highlights the incredible potential in our national research infrastructures – in those cutting-edge facilities that, with the right investment for the future, will give a big boost to our research capability, right across the UK.
A key theme of the report, and a theme of my tenure as the UK’s Science Minister, is that our current and future success as a scientific powerhouse lies in strengthening and expanding our already impressive national capabilities.
In other words, it is in partnership with industry and academics in our existing research institutions and our existing universities, that we will deliver the uplift in the doubling of the R&D budget.
It will be by empowering existing institutions, and strengthening their collaborations, that we will have the maximum impact.
And it will only be through encouraging existing business and industry to invest in R&D, that we will also be able to meet 2.4% in 2,500 days.
And we need to renew our focus on people, to develop our pipeline of researchers and innovators that will be delivering the step-change, right across the country, in research and development-driven productivity.
Let me now turn to each aspect of this.
A northern R&D powerhouse
To start with, we must recognise that the so-called ‘MIT for the North’ is already staring us in the face.
It is right here in Durham, but also in Manchester, in Liverpool, in Newcastle, in Leeds, in Sheffield, Lancaster and York. It is in Sunderland and Hull, in Bradford and Salford – a constellation across the North that is already shining brightly.
Take our 30-plus universities in the North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber regions. These universities, together, employ nearly 43,000 researchers. (Footnote 3)
Our northern universities have attracted research grants and contracts worth a total of £1.2 billion in 2017 to 2018 alone. (Footnote 4)
In 2016, universities in the North of England published the same number of highly cited papers as the whole of South Korea.
And per capita, Northern universities produced more academic research than the USA, Germany or France. (Footnote 5)
And just look at the N8 group of northern research-intensive universities. In 2017 to 2018, they secured more research funding from UKRI than Oxford and Cambridge combined. (Footnote 6)
This impressive strength of Northern research is also recognised internationally. We’re proud of major facilities like Jodrell Bank, where the global headquarters of the Square Kilometer Array will be situated.
And on Wednesday this week I met with the Director of the US Department of Energy to confirm our continued co-operation in a new underground high-energy physics facility, involving Northern universities including Durham, Lancaster and Warwick.
So yes, by any measure, the North has some of the very best universities in the world, just as George Osborne highlighted in his Northern Powerhouse speech back in 2014.
And yes, the collective capability of these world-leading universities is greater than the sum of its parts.
But I believe we can go even further – we can look to institutions outside the N8, to help them realise their potential in research and development.
Because it will be crucial, if we are to level up R&D funding, that we not only strengthen existing capacity in every corner of the UK, but also that we can support emerging excellence in universities and institutions that are growing their research capability.
We are determined to provide the funding and support to achieve this.
Already I have announced a record increase to Higher Education Innovation Funding, bringing it to £250 million per year, which will turbocharge universities’ knowledge exchange activities. We have launched the first round of the Expanding Excellence in England Fund, we’ve got the first phase of the Connecting Capabilities Fund up and running, and we’re already well into the second round of the Strength in Places Fund.
We are embarking on the largest ever expansion of university R&D right across the UK.
And when it comes to supporting and growing excellent university research departments all over the country, I fully recognise the value of QR.
Perhaps in the past, our focus on challenge-led funds masked a decline in that important mainstream of basic, curiosity-driven research.
But this isn’t about picking one type of research over another.
All should be lifted if we are to succeed.
Already last year I worked to deliver the first real terms increase in QR in England for over a decade. And I want to do so again this year.
But I also want to ensure that we are ‘levelling up’ university departments right across the country. Not just making it easier and quicker to apply for funding.
But critically, we need to think very carefully about how all of our schemes, including QR, can benefit existing institutions in all regions.
I am determined to support existing institutions, right across the country, to work with you to foster and build networks.
We can already see how universities are working together in networks like the N8 group of research-intensive institutions in the North, or Midlands Innovation, or GW4 in the South West.
I want us to build on these partnerships, to develop new alliances between existing universities, driving up collaboration, developing deeper partnerships with industry, and working together at scale.
And we are already seeing these collaborations flourish.
Not just within the North, but the North working with the South, and the East with the West.
In robotics for example, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to scientists working in Manchester in the Robotics and AI in Nuclear Hub, which is working with Sellafield, EDF Energy, AWE and Rolls Royce to bring cutting edge technology to bear on their challenges.
But the strength of the hub is that it spans Manchester, Bristol, Oxford, Reading and more.
In space, the national Satellite Applications Catapult engaged with an impressive 753 new organisations last year – an amazing achievement. And I’ll turn to catapults again in a moment.
And in Quantum, the Quantum Hubs are bringing together 17 universities, right across the whole UK, with 132 companies – working in exciting new partnerships, to develop new technologies for sensing, imaging, computing and communications – technologies that are essential for our long-term future.
We need to celebrate these successes. Unearth them – and make them symbols of national pride.
And we need to realise that these successes only happen because people have harnessed the necessary ingredients to create the delicate ecosystem needed for world-class innovation.
There is no recipe, no cookbook for this. Much is the result of world-class talent coming together, but equally much is to do with the determination of our excellent universities to reach out beyond academia, and to engage with industry.
Clusters only emerge thanks to a critical mass, a critical mass that can best be forged by existing institutions.
Institutions and partnerships cannot be designed from scratch; they develop, emerge and evolve. They are not easily created, which is why when they are, they need to be nourished over time. As Sir Roger Scruton noted:
Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets … all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century.
So I am clear, that while we are doubling our investment into research and innovation, we will be doubling down on existing institutions, to support and grow amazing new partnerships and collaborations, right across the UK.
But to achieve this, we will need to develop a far clearer, shared sense of purpose and drive within our university sector, where institutions are encouraged and rewarded for engaging actively with new partners, for responding to the complex challenges and opportunities in their communities, and for developing and enhancing their relationships with civic society.
That’s why we are providing funding to the Civic University Network, to support a growing movement across the higher education sector.
Because universities are not just engines of growth, or producers of skilled human capital. They are complex organisations, with complex relationships with those around them. Relationships that need to be nurtured, developed and brought to bear for the benefit of us all.
And it’s why it was so important that Research England published the next steps on the Knowledge Exchange Framework last week.
It is hard to overstate the importance of this – it is a huge step on the journey towards levelling up.
The KEF will provide universities with that all-important strategic driver, putting knowledge exchange right at the heart of universities’ missions, on a par with their teaching and research.
Let me be clear – the KEF will not be some meaningless, bureaucratic, tick-box exercise.
It is about empowering institutions to shift up to a higher gear, not just in commercialisation or technology transfer, but elevating their entire purpose as institutions – institutions that have such extraordinary potential to make a positive difference to their towns, cities and regions.
And our review of HEIF will help us take this even further.
As your universities minister, I will do everything in my power to help you to embrace the civic agenda in meaningful way, to help you to make the biggest difference to achieving our ‘levelling up’ mission.
Achieving a step-change in business-led innovation
And alongside this, we will also need to build up investment by industry. It’s clear that to do this we need to embrace and encourage what Richard Jones calls “a resurgence of the regions” – putting innovation at the heart of economic regeneration, right across the UK. (Source: Jones, R. (2019). A Resurgence of the Regions: rebuilding innovation capacity across the whole UK. Working paper)
One of the flagship examples this is our High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
The unrivalled manufacturing expertise and R&D capabilities in this catapult are helping industry to respond to the opportunities and challenges of new technology – bringing the so-called fourth industrial revolution to life.
This Catapult has been the very model of success – supporting over four and a half thousand projects in the last year alone, with their work benefiting companies of all shapes and sizes, including almost two and a half thousand small and medium-sized firms.
The Catapult has 7 centres at locations across the UK. From the Advanced Forming Research Centre in Strathclyde which specialises in metal forming and forging research, to the National Composites Centre in my own constituency where innovators come when they need to make things lighter, stronger, smarter and more sustainable.
Last week I visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, part of the Catapult.
I saw incredible examples of how scientists are solving the manufacturing challenges of the future, in aerospace, in construction, and even in nuclear.
And earlier this month, I visited Airbus to see how the Catapult has attracted the company’s greatest R&D global investment in the £600 million Wing of Tomorrow project, joining up the AMRC in Sheffield and now the AMRC Cymru recently opened in Deeside.
This partnership is bringing real benefit to industry, accelerating our journey towards becoming a true ‘innovation nation’.
The incredible value that our catapult network brings to establishing academic and business collaborations across the UK is obvious, which is why I am determined to strengthen its purpose for the future.
We only need look at the investments other countries are making, not just the obvious example of the German Fraunhofer institutes, but also less well-known examples such as the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan, the GTS institutes in Denmark and the TNO in the Netherlands.
Because we know, as these other countries also know, that securing the economic benefits of R&D depend on levelling up the Development side of the R&D equation, and, as last year’s Manifesto for the North states, strengthening collaboration to deliver productivity and growth.
It’s why the AMRC has been able to transform an area of Yorkshire, formerly best known for its mining pits.
This is now a thriving innovation ecosystem, with the AMRC at its heart.
It’s a clear example of what US academics Pisano and Shih would call an “industrial commons”, powering up a whole region in a virtuous cycle. As they say, “experts flock there because that’s where the jobs and knowledge networks are. Firms do the same to tap the talent pool, stay abreast of advances, and be near suppliers and potential partners.” (Source: Pisano, G. P., & Shih, W.C. (2019). Restoring American Competitiveness. Harvard Business Review.)
This, very plainly, is what is happening in the AMRC, with the demand of major firms, stimulated with new ideas, driving innovation through their supply chain of smaller businesses.
This is the real story that lies behind the data. It shows us that, in the North, it is business that is leading the way – and that public spending needs to follow. It is not an either-or question, or a question of public money ‘crowding out’ private.
It is a demonstration of the true commitment of industry to investing in R&D.
And we are starting to witness similar clusters flourishing elsewhere, e.g. around the photonics Fraunhofer in Glasgow – the very first Fraunhofer to open in the UK.
Or in Manchester around the National Graphene Institute, where I was hosted last week by Nobel laureate Sir Andre Geim, and the Sir Henry Royce institute – all part of an ambitious Oxford Road development plan.
And last week I heard about inspiring new plans to develop an Innovation District to strengthen university, civic and business partnerships, with business-led innovation right at its heart.
It’s easy to see how developing innovation districts like this will be essential for raising regional prosperity – where research excellence and innovation strengths can mesh with local and regional industry, supported by the right mix of infrastructure investment and regulatory freedoms that will deliver real jobs and real growth.
It is a genuinely exciting prospect – one that I want us to pursue further, right across the UK.
A research people strategy for 21st century
But, as I have said, the exact recipe for success involves much more than the pounds and pence.
It is more than north versus south, or funding rules and regulations.
It is about people.
Because it is only by unlocking the potential of our people, our talented researchers and innovators, and our local leaders, that we can deliver on our promise to be a science superpower, levelling up across the UK.
And it is no good doubling our investments in R&D if we don’t have the people here doing the work.
The Prime Minister has already stated his intention to create an ambitious package of visa reforms, ensuring that the best and brightest can come to the UK, and that international students can continue to live and work in the UK after they finish their course.
But beyond this, we need to focus on training, to ensure that people right across the UK can seize the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.
And we’ll need to expand the pipeline of talent that flows from doctoral study through to early career research, and on into leadership roles.
But also commit to reforming our skills offer, to strengthen the link between FE, HE and R&D careers, to set an ambitious direction of travel for education and skills.
All while ensuring that the boundary between industry and academia is much more permeable.
These are huge challenges.
But ones that I want our whole community of researchers, businesses and local leaders to rise to.
And when it comes to improving academic life, I am committed to working with you to improve your working conditions, to address the issues raised by Wellcome Trust in their report on research culture last week, and again by UCU in their report earlier this week.
I want to work with you on developing a Research People Strategy for the next decade, a new overarching approach to transforming research practice and culture.
I want more research – but I also want better research. For I want our investment to ensure our R&D landscape is above all sustainable for the future. And that means investing sustainably in people.
This is of course about building the pipeline of talent. But I also want to recognise and reward best practice in how research is being administered.
So in return for increasing funding, I want to see research departments equally commit to transforming their environments.
Not just by reducing bureaucracy, and fully embracing networked and open research.
But also by improving reward and recognition for staff. Supporting and nurturing early career researchers who need time and space to develop, but also those with significant experience and wisdom.
Giving our backing to initiatives like the Declaration on Research Assessment. And the UKRI committee on research integrity.
Adopting modern approaches to knowledge exchange and technology transfer.
And tackling long-standing issues around bullying and harassment.
I’m determined to ensure that these elements of a healthy research environment are properly incentivised across the university sector. So that we can unlock the potential of the people, the talented individuals, that will deliver our vision to become a science superpower.
That is part of the reason for committing to a new, high-risk, high-reward research funding approach, modelled on the innovative funding approach of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s, to complement our existing funding approaches.
It’s about unlocking the potential of people – bringing the best minds to the UK, but also ensuring that we nourish the best minds in the UK to achieve their ambitions and be given the space and freedom to experiment, the freedom to succeed, but crucially also the freedom to fail.
Capturing the imagination of people right across the UK
Because it is people, not buildings or institutions, who will show us the way.
And that’s because you all know, much better than me, what will work best for you in your own places, in your own cities, towns and regions.
You will know what the opportunities are, here in the North, to build on your world-leading excellence and your prestige and power in applied research, across engineering, materials science, biology and the wider bioeconomy, computer science and many other areas.
To reach out into the communities left behind, to revitalise industries, to move them out of the past and into a future at the apex of innovation, whether that is in state-of-the-art manufacturing, the latest carbon capture for heavy industry, or machine learning and big data in our services sector.
Just as the North has led the way in renewable energy offshore. The application of research is a signpost, to a northern renaissance in new and emerging technology. Raising productivity; harnessed for the wider benefit of all.
And it is you who will know what will make the most difference – what it will take, to unlock your potential, to build and cement new partnerships, and to make a real difference to productivity where you live.
Because it is no secret that we face major challenges – stagnating productivity, widening gaps between north and south.
And we cannot solve these problems in a top-down way, driven by central government diktat.
Make no mistake, this government is determined to play its part. We are firmly committed to delivering historic increases to R&D funding, to truly harnessing the power of innovation, raising productivity and living standards in all parts of the UK.
But this can only work as a partnership.
That’s why I will be inviting leaders of universities and other R&D institutions to work with me to form an advisory council on R&D for the North. Not only to meet once, but to meet regularly. And not down in London, but here, in the North. I will do the same for the Midlands and other regions as part of my One Nation R&D commitment.
But my message is clear: I will come to you. To meet with you, time and time and again, to work in close partnership with you, to hear your best ideas, and to empower you to pursue them.
I want to learn from you. To hear about what works.
And to learn from what hasn’t worked in the past.
Because our success as a nation depends not only on doubling the R&D budget.
It depends on all of us, working together, capturing each other’s imaginations, and ‘levelling up’ all parts of the UK.
So my question to you is this: just how far does your imagination stretch?
Chris Skidmore, Science Minister
For this publication UKRI have presented the data using NUTS1 regional classifications which divides the country into 12 major nations and regions: East Midlands, East of England, London, North East, North West, Northern Ireland, Scotland, South East, South West, Wales, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Figures for 2017 to 2018 are the latest available for funding received. QR funding is allocated within the academic year. It is allocated by different organisations in each nation of the UK; Research England in England, SfC in Scotland, HEFCW in Wales and DfE in Northern Ireland.
HESA staff record, total academic staff, 2017-18, filtered by NUTS1 region.
HESA finance record, total research grants and contracts, 2017-18, filtered by NUTS1 region.
BEIS internal analysis of citations and publications data.