UKSPA Chairman Dr Glenn Crocker MBE considers how the world and the future of science parks will be post covid.
The light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel appears to be getting brighter, with the vaccination programme rolling out across Europe. So, it seems timely to consider the post-Covid world. Will we simply revert to business-as-usual or are we entering a period of rapid change? If change is on the cards, what will it look like and how will science parks not only deal with it, but thrive and grow, to the benefit of the R&D community and society?
The UK economy has been devastated by successive lockdowns and some roles may have disappeared for good. But there is an opportunity to “build back better” with the science and engineering industries at the heart of a new, stronger and more productive economy.
Venture investors realise this and are ploughing more money than ever before into the technology sector. The Government realises it also. In March 2020 it announced plans to double R&D investment to £22B per annum, with a drive to reverse the decades long decline in R&D investment to achieve the 2.4% of GDP OECD average. Whilst being average doesn’t sound like much of a goal, the potential growth in investment could be transformative to the science and technology sector.
Aligned with that is the “levelling-up” agenda, at the heart of which should be a levelling up of investment in research and development. While there is no question that our international centres of excellence should continue to be built on, it is a criminal waste of opportunity not to fully invest in the wider research base across the UK. The discrepancy was eloquently highlighted in last year’s Nesta report, “The Missing £4billion: Making R&D work for the whole of the UK”, written by Richard Jones and Tom Forth.
So, the first thing we all need to do is hold the government’s feet to the fire on this commitment. We mustn’t allow double counting or announcing the same initiative over and again, pretending it’s new. Science Parks across the UK have a vital role to play in supporting R&D initiatives and making sure there are sensible homes for increased investment. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the R&D base across the whole of the UK without detracting from already strong locations. There’s theoretically no need to “rob Peter to pay Paul”.
The other major challenge that science parks, and R&D facilities in general, have yet to tackle in any meaningful way is sustainability. This is an issue that is rapidly moving to the top of the agenda and, as research facilities are notoriously carbon- intensive, it is particularly pertinent. We need to work out how to make existing buildings more energy efficient alongside reducing the carbon footprint of the people who work in the space and ensuring the next generation of buildings is carbon neutral. The University of Nottingham has demonstrated what can be done with its Carbon Neutral Chemistry building, an amazing facility that is shining a light on the art of the achievable.
And of course, the technologies that will drive the efficiency transformation of R&D buildings could, and should, be developed by innovative new businesses based at the science parks. Which brings us back full circle to investment in R&D. The development of the Covid-19 vaccine in less than a year has shown us what can happen when enough resources are well directed at a problem. Imagine what could happen in the UK if a surge in investment is well directed to addressing problems of climate change or healthcare. Science industries will boom along with the need for homes for those businesses. We all have an interest in making sure this happens.