Here at the Campaign for Science and Engineering our work on increasing research and development (R&D) intensity has focussed on two main strands. The first is working with Government to give them recommendations, published in our report Building Scientific Strength last year, on how the target to invest 2.4% of GDP in R&D can be met. The second is working with our members across the UK to create an evidence base for the ‘Place Agenda’ and regionally focussed investment in R&D.
From distinctive strengths in transport innovation in the West Midlands to leadership in the life sciences in the Liverpool City Region, regions across the UK have demonstrated excellence in R&D. These strengths not only have a role in contributing to local and inclusive growth, but in making the UK a more research-intensive nation. Recognising different local strengths, or indeed existing local capacity for research, will be vital in unlocking the potential of every region.
Improving regional growth through R&D investment is a growing political priority, with the Government recently announcing it will produce a Place Strategy for UK R&D. The Government have spoken about directly tackling regional differences and ‘levelling-up’ those areas of the UK that have not seen high levels of investment in recent years. Investing in areas of excellence and building regional research capacity across the whole of the UK is one important way to ensure communities can prosper. This investment in regional R&D will also play a significant role in reaching the Government’s target of increasing combined public and private R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
So, what are CaSE doing about? We are working with our diverse, UK-wide membership to develop an evidence base for the impact of place-based regional R&D investment on local economic growth. We have initiated a series of discussions across the regions and devolved nations to bring together senior representatives from academia, industry and local government to review areas such as the enablers and barriers of different places in increasing research intensity, the structure of partnerships between organisations and the opportunities that R&D investment could bring for local economies.
The creation of UK Research and Innovation has already provided new opportunities to support local R&D; new investments such as the Strength in Places Fund and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund will aim to support areas of excellence and build research capacity across all four corners of the UK. Strong evidence will be essential to inform policymaking and ensure that a place-based approach to research funding will in fact deliver the intended outcomes. We hope that our contribution to the evidence base will support policymakers in building a more productive and prosperous nation.
So far, we have held discussions in Scotland, London, the West of England, the West Midlands and the North East. Our work will continue across the UK in the coming months, including in Northern Ireland, Wales, and other English regions. Although this work is ongoing, several themes have begun to emerge from the discussions we have had so far.
We have found that the lack of regional branding is often a barrier to attracting R&D investment into a specific place. Strong branding and a clearer definition of a region’s strengths can provide clarity on what differentiates a place from others nationally and internationally. Additionally, strong local civic leadership, and an understanding by local leaders of R&D and the role it can play in economic growth, is essential to driving forward increased R&D intensity.
University-business collaborations play a powerful role in describing the local innovation ecosystem and promoting a region. This is particularly true for the collaborations between Universities and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Universities often act as an anchor point around which a local innovation ecosystem can be built. However, research ecosystems are often complex and fragmented, which can hinder SMEs from accessing finance and innovation support easily. We have found that this is an area where Science Parks have an important role to play as a way of bringing together innovative SMEs and, in some cases, helping them access this support.
Skills is a topic that has come up during every conversation we have had so far. Attracting and retaining highly skilled graduates in a region is important in order to attract innovative businesses to that region. This is often affected by the wider perceptions of a region and quality of life factors outside of R&D, such as housing affordability. And finally, more infrastructure will be essential to prepare places for growing research activity.
We will be continuing our discussions around the country with the aim of producing a report on what we have found. We will use this to continue to engage with the Government as they develop proposals for their Place Strategy.
Daniel Rathbone, Assistant Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering