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HEi-think: Some vital questions over £4.7 billion R & D windfall

As the higher education sector welcomes news of an extra £4.7 billion for research and development announced in the Autumn Statement last week, Professor Martin Barstow, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategic Science Projects and Director of the Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation at the University of Leicester, examines some of the key questions outstanding over the funding.

 

Despite financial forecasts described as overly gloomy by Brexiteers, Chancellor Philip Hammond’s first and last Autumn Statement proved to be something of a cheering windfall for higher education.

The research community can hardly fail to be delighted with the extra £4.7 billion promised for research and innovation from next year to 2021, with an annual spend gradually rising from £425 million in 2017-18 to £2 billion by 2020-21. The extra £2 billion a year by the end of this Parliament is an increase of around 20 per cent to total government R&D spending – the biggest increase since 1979. Funded by more borrowing, this is genuinely new money, which is what the sector was lobbying for in the run up to the Autumn Statement.

The big question now though, is how it will be allocated, and to who?

The Chancellor has outlined a mechanism for distributing the money. There are two routes: a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund managed by Innovate UK and the research councils, and through UK Research and Innovation awarding funding on the basis of national excellence, with a 'substantial' increase in grant funding via Innovate UK.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is a new cross-disciplinary fund to support collaborations between business and the UK’s science base, which will “set identifiable challenges for UK researchers to tackle”. Modelled on the USA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme, the challenge fund will cover a broad range of technologies, to be decided by an evidence-based process.

Needless to say, there is going to be a great deal of competition for a slice of this money. Universities will be keen to demonstrate how they are working closely with business and industry in areas of research where the UK already has, or has great potential to develop, world-class strengths. Their case will be even more compelling if it can be shown the research has the capacity to support the creation of many high level jobs across a range of sectors.

I was pleased to see, while attending the CBI conference where the Prime Minister trailed the news of the new R & D funding, that my area of expertise, space science, was being considered as one such area of significant promise. The government has previously stated that it wants to quadruple the income generated by the UK space industry to £40bn by 2030.  It has also set a target for increasing the number of jobs supported by the industry in the same period from 35,000 to 100,000. This seems entirely possible given that research in this field has applications not just in space science, but also in finance, IT, energy, defence, environment, transport, healthcare, and agriculture. Space applications are also very relevant for overseas development aid.

There will be many other competing examples, but before any bids can be prepared some remaining questions over how the new R & D funding will work must be addressed. Universities UK has pointed out, for example, that the Autumn Statement does not refer to existing mechanisms like quality-related (QR) funding, other research council channels and the higher education innovation fund (HEIF) in England. It remains to be seen how the new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will work together with existing funding streams, and whether new funds will be targeted to international research collaboration.

Another big question is how the aims of the new fund and the institutions and firms involved will be affected by Brexit. Space science again provides a good example. In many ways it is a field that offers great post-Brexit opportunities. Research and development in space is global, and the European Space Agency is separate from the EU, so we will remain part of that. But there is a risk around whether we will continue to get access to facilities the EU has funded which we have already paid into, such as Earth observation data. The ESA is launching satellites for Earth observation and institutions like my own play a very important role in explaining that data, which is necessary for commercial exploitation and other applications benefitting the economy and society. The government needs to negotiate for the UK to retain its access to these resources.

Hopefully in the coming months some answers and solutions to these important questions will begin to emerge. In the meantime, the research community will be thankful to be helping policymakers focus on the “problem” of deciding precisely how an extra £4.7 billion should be spent.

 

Leicester National Space Centre - could new R & D cash benefit space science?
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