If you are a registered HEi-know user, please log in to continue.

Unregistered Visitors

You must be a registered HEi-know user to access Briefing Reports, stories and other information and services. Please click on the link below to find out more about HEi-know.

Find out more

UK must invest more in science to protect its global standing

Universities have been invited to submit responses to a consultation on the government’s proposals for a new science and innovation strategy. HEi-know reviews the issues and speaks to key commentators.

The coalition sees science and technology as one of the main drivers of the economic recovery. The proposed new science and innovation strategy aims to ensure that the UK maintains its global position, particularly in the face of competition from emerging economies.

While it is generally acknowledged that the UK punches above its weight in research – it is second in the world to the US for scientific excellence – the chancellor has insisted that it is time to confront the “hard truth - that for decades the UK has done too little to turn British ingenuity into commercial success”.

The UK higher education funding councils and Research Councils UK have asked universities for their views on how the UK should maintain and develop the science infrastructure, its research capability and impact, the research-business interface and STEM skills.

A report published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in January, Insights from international benchmarking of the UK science and innovation system, makes clear that there are a number of worrying weaknesses in the system.

UK total investment in R&D has been relatively static at around 1.8 per cent of GDP since the early 1990s. In contrast, the US spends around 2.8 per cent of GDP. China increased its R&D by 28 per cent in 2009 and 15 per cent in 2010, to roughly £125bn (1.8 per cent of GDP), and South Korea doubled its expenditure between 2003 and 2011 to around 4 per cent of GDP. France and Germany have consistently invested substantially more than 2 per cent of their GDP in R&D.

The report also said that while public sector support for innovation was harder to compare, such data as exists suggested “UK funding is very low”. It concluded that: “Public sector expenditure may need to rise more sharply in the short-to-medium term, partly to develop the necessary talent and partly to catalyse private sector investment.”

The conclusion that more public money is likely to be needed, drawn by the report’s author Tera Allas, Director General of Strategic Advice at BIS, is likely to be echoed in many of the HE responses to the strategy consultation.

Graeme Reid, the new Professor of Science and Research Policy at University College London and formerly BIS head of research funding, says the figures speak for themselves.

“You can see that a 30 per cent increase would take us to the level of Germany and a 50 per cent increase would take us to the level of the US,” he said. “Whether or not there should be those increases depends on public spending policy overall and the relative case for science among all the other calls for public spending.”

The Government has already said that the capital budget for science will rise to £1.1 billion in 2015-16 and be maintained in real terms until the end of the decade. The Treasury wants to ensure it is targeted at areas that have the highest potential for “commercial application”.

On maximizing research capability and impact, responses are likely to be mixed, with some criticising and some supporting the concentration of research funding in the hands of a few.

The Russell Group has urged the government to focus funding on the "jewels in the crown" or risk falling behind globally.

But Pam Tatlow, the Director of the Million Plus think tank, said that the approach was outdated: “You really have to get out of the mindset that those who have it, get it, based on research that is a decade old,” she said. “All universities that have got research degree awarding powers should be publicly funded for research infrastructure.”

She also cites the importance of “translational research”, or finding practical applications from the results of basic research.

“Universities that don’t get as much publicly funded investment should be able to access the funds for translational research,” she said. 

The Higher Education Funding Council for England  wants evidence to show why businesses from the UK invest less in R&D than businesses in other leading economies and what could be done about it.

According to Imperial Innovations Group, founded by Imperial College, there are major blockages to the commercialisation of research, such as lead times and bureaucracy.

“Research emanating from universities is typically still very early in terms of proof of concept and requires a long time to become market ready and then commercially successful,” it said. “Cutting this timeline would make the early commercialisation companies more attractive to fund.”

The Russell Group wants to see enhanced proof of concept funding and better financial and tax support for early stage ventures from universities.

Professor Reid said a clear commitment to maintaining HEFCE’s quality-related (QR) funding, would be welcome.

“It underpins a lot of the project work that is funded by the research councils, business and charities,” he said. “In particular the business support element of QR is fundamental to the collaboration between universities, businesses and charities.”

Professor Reid also highlighted the importance of the Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF).

“HEIF has had a transformational effect on universities,” he said. “I know there has been a debate about raising the level of HEIF and there is a good case to be made for that.”.

Professor Reid backs the move to streamline the Research Excellence Framework (REF), while leaving the relatively new assessment of impact in place for the time being.

Another worrying shortcoming highlighted in the Tera Allas report was the poor performance of the UK’s science and innovation system in relation to small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). This applies both to SMEs’ own activity and linkages with research institutions.

Evidence shows that university/business links have improved considerably in recent years. A report published by HEFCE in April painted a positive picture of universities acting as “anchors” of the economy and showed a rebalancing of university efforts towards the private sector.

Yet despite having some of the best research universities in the world, the chancellor pointed out in a speech in April, the UK files fewer patents each year than the US, Japan, Germany, France, China and South Korea.

Responses to the consultation are likely to again point to public funding. A report published earlier this year by the Campaign for Science and Engineering showed that investing public money in STEM has a positive impact on industry productivity, the ability of universities to attract external income and the interaction between researchers and the wider economy.

Alan Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Enterprise Studies at Cambridge University and senior research fellow at the National Centre for Universities and Business, who co-authored the report, said: “Academics receiving public sector research funding are also those most likely to engage with the private sector. The report provides compelling evidence that public and private sector research expenditures are complementary. They should not be seen as substitutes in the drive to enhance the productivity performance of the UK.”

Access to postgraduate funding will feature in responses to the question on how to expand the number of people in the UK in STEM disciplines. But even then, the pipeline of skilled people is not assured.

Diana Garnham, Chief Executive of the Science Council, said less than 60 per cent of the 195,000 STEM graduates every year go in to STEM-related jobs.

“We need to ask why that is happening,” she said. “Is it because there are better opportunities outside STEM, is it because they are not work-ready, is there a problem with what universities are actually delivering? There are about 5,000 STEM degrees on offer. It is very difficult for employers to know what they all are. The purpose of some degrees is not really clear to employers or to students.”


This article was originally published by HEi-know on June 17. Find out how about how to access more of our analysis articles and Briefing Reports as they are published here.