My last article was when the science and innovation sector – and the country – had just begun to enter the first lockdown. Back in the spring, UKSPA held a very well supported conference at the University of Leeds. The following week the Budget announcement was described by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, as putting “science, innovation and technology at the heart of the UK’s investment strategy.
However, within three weeks of the Budget UKSPA members and the innovation economy began to adapt to the reality of life under lockdown and many occupiers were soon working alongside the healthcare profession at the forefront of dealing with the coronavirus crisis. From providing PPE for medical professionals to joining in research for a vaccine, organisations at many of the Science Parks and the other innovation locations in membership of UKSPA were central to addressing the challenge of Covid-19.
While life science businesses are in a strong position compared to many other sectors, there is inevitably nervousness about the future, which will feed into caution about expanding and taking on additional space unless absolutely necessary. As a consequence, there may well be a short-term tail off in the growth in occupancy levels.
Funding for the sector may well increase still further once normality returns. The government has already committed to more than doubling funding for research to £22bn annually, a significant proportion of which will be directed into life sciences – both academic and corporate. The Comprehensive Spending Review being undertaken by Government is widely believed to have science and research at its heart while the UKRI R&D Roadmap spoke of how embracing the power of science, research and innovation means that “we will leap forward and build a brighter future for all”.
While the huge national debt burden resulting from the crisis might tempt government to cut back, there is strong sense that spending on the industries of the future is going to be even more important in the post-pandemic world.
Light at the end of the tunnel
In the current climate, forecasting even what will happen next week is impossible and predicting what will happen in the science and innovation sector is no different. However, we can gain comfort from the fact that ours is a vital sector not only in the current battle against Covid-19, but also in the future rebuilding of the economy.
UKSPA also had to adapt to these changing and demanding circumstances. This was initially by undertaking initial research with members on the impact of Covid-19 that supported UKSPA briefings to BEIS, Treasury and the devolved governments on the implications for the sector and the support needed.
This was supported by a new series of webinars and over the course of lockdown we organised 13 online conferences for members which involved presentations from 52 speakers. Overall 1028 registrations were made for these webinars from 424 individual members. These webinars will continue over the remainder of this year and early 2021 until there can be a safe return to physically attended conferences.
The Leeds conference that I mentioned in my introduction, was a positive one and there was a great deal of support for UKSPA to develop over future years and engage with stakeholders and decision-makers to deliver further support for our members and the wider sector. The new series of webinars has – and will – involve discussions with key partners from UKRI through to other organisations (such as NESTA and AIRTO) that share our vision for a science and innovation that is central to economic recovery.