Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

8 November 2021

Professor Chris Warkup is optimistic about the UK Government's Innovation policy, read his blog post to find out why.

A long, slow and painful decline in UK Government funded ‘solution-focussed’ research and innovation began about the same time as Ian Dury and the Blockheads were singing the lyric that titles this piece, 1979.

My own career, working in putting science into practice, began somewhat later. After two jobs in industry, my first job in the ‘space between’ industry, the academic research base and government started in 1988. It is perhaps the first time since then, that I am genuinely optimistic about Research, Development AND Innovation (R, D&I) in the UK.

My first R, D&I job was at around the same time as the so-called Barnes Review of ‘Department’s Agricultural R&D’ that saw brutal cuts (~30% in a short time period) to budgets with the direct consequence of the closure of major research institutes in agri-food. The very research institutes that in the post-war years had helped UK agriculture become some of the most technological and efficient in the world. These were not the last of the cuts, departmental R&D budgets were cut again and again in the next two decades.

The research institutes that have survived have been forced to ‘follow the money’ and become ever more short-term and small scale in their thinking, and ‘curiosity-driven’ in their science. Their core budgets have shrunk and most now rely heavily on Research Council responsive-mode funding. The remaining institutes have done well in their transformation and are now effective leaders in relatively basic science; but without the translational science and extension capacity that these institutes once had, it may not be coincidence that the UK’s  agri-food innovation and performance have markedly declined.

In the early 1980s Defra was spending over £330m per year on R&D (inflation corrected from Parker, 2016[i]). In 2019 this had fallen to £53m. This is just one perspective that has seen government departments’ share of the overall UK research budget shrink across government. Just after the 1971 Rothschild review of science funding, total R&D spend for government departments was about equal to the research council spend. In 2019 UKRI expenditure was £7.4bn (including Research England spend), whereas all departmental spend totalled £3.2bn (of which the NHS research budget was £1.2bn).

Things could have been even worse. We are fortunate that Research Council funding has been relatively stable in the intervening years. Clearly, much Research Council funding is strategically themed and solution focussed, but it is also strongly ‘curiosity-driven’ and/or ‘discovery-led’.  The outputs are often very far from a level of technology readiness that is  de-risked enough for industry to pick up and run with. Just as importantly, Research Council funding is largely delivered by funding projects and not programmes. There is no doubt in my mind that it was the more translational end of government’s research funding that was hollowed out by the decades of cuts.

It has been argued that the UK deploys its lower R&D spend very effectively. How else do we punch substantially above our weight in terms of citations when we spend well below average? Strong citations performance can, on the other hand, be taken as evidence that UK science is over-focussed on relatively ‘basic science’ or curiosity-driven science – others are building on our important discoveries. Because of this, and our diminished national capacity to capture the value of UK science for the benefit of the UK, I have, in my more pessimistic moods, described much of UK science funding as a charitable donation of science to the rest of the world. We will usually get the benefits eventually of course, buying the product or service from abroad, where the profits and jobs will be.

Pendulums swing one way and then they swing back — I’m now far less pessimistic for the near-term. If we are once again to become a leading innovation nation, then our fantastic science base provides the ideal foundation. Let me explain my three-part reasons to be cheerful.

  1. Innovation as policy

“The first thing I want to say is how refreshing it is to see an actual innovation strategy — not just some words tagged onto the end of a research strategy document”. I may not have these words totally correct, but that was certainly one audience sentiment expressed to The Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Secretary of State at BEIS, at a recent Foundation for Science and Technology event where he spoke about the origins of the UK Innovations Strategy: Leading the Future by Creating it. A sentiment I happily echo.

The primary objective of the Strategy, published in July this year, is “to boost private sector investment across the whole of the UK, creating the right conditions for all businesses to innovate and giving them the confidence to do so.” I find it difficult to construct arguments against a strategy that intends to convert our excellent science and ideas into solutions for public good. If there are concerns, they mostly originate from universities parochially interested in protecting their current research income. The four pillars of the Innovation

Strategy are:

  • Unleashing business. This mainly prefaces the previously announced substantial increased investment in government expenditure — seeking to leverage total UK GERD (Gross Expenditure on R&D) towards the 2.5% average in OECD countries. The last time I looked, we were at about 1.8%, so this is not a trivial ambition.
  • People. Making the UK a good place to work in science and innovative business, and making it easier to recruit and retain global talent.
  • Institutions and places. Ensuring “our research, development & innovation institutions serve the needs of businesses and places across the UK.”
  • Missions & Technologies – In short, prioritising investment of government funds in more ‘solution-focused’ research.

There is nothing particularly novel in these pillars, it is more the existence of an explicit Innovation Strategy that makes me more cheerful and optimistic. And, whilst politicians are better at words than actions, maybe there is some future intent in the words in quotes in pillar three above. I remain critical of the relationship between universities and businesses in the UK — but the more optimistic me hopes for the deployment of policy levers that can make universities (and other research institutions) more responsive to the needs of industry and their local communities.

  1. More government money directed at the right places

Despite the considerable pressures on the UK Exchequer, last week’s budget and spending review largely made good on the expressed intent to invest taxpayers’ funds (or indeed taxpayers’ debt), to leverage private investment in R&D towards the published 2.4% target. It was not just the financial commitment that cheered me up, but how the money was allocated.

Whilst there is a little more for the Research Councils in UKRI, there is a significant increase for Innovate UK, and even more importantly, a substantial increase in departmental R&D budgets — a near doubling in absolute terms over the plan period.

This encourages me for two reasons. The first is that departments are likely to be much more catholic in the entities they fund to undertake R, D&I. It should be an uncontentious statement that Universities are not always the best places to undertake research. As projects become larger-scale and more multidisciplinary (and potentially longer-term) then institutes, Research and Technology Organizations (RTOs) and commercial research providers with flexible staffing and access to real-world environments come into their own. These are, of course, the entities that have been starved of programme funding in recent decades, so any increase in funding needs to be phased, recognising that capacity needs to be rebuilt.

The second reason is that the ‘Missions and Technologies’ focus (including the funding for ARIA, with its very specific mission focus) should signal increased willingness and ability across government to fund managed programmes of research.

Perhaps there should be more emphasis on the word managed than programmes. Arguably Research Councils and Innovate UK have had programmes of research, but these have been essentially collections of projects funded via responsive-mode themed-competition. To me a managed programme is very different. In the early 1990s I led a significant programme of connected in-house and commissioned academic research. We learnt a great deal, but more importantly we solved a problem.

A managed programme seeks to develop a connected and coherent set of projects aimed at a given outcome — the programme management team can commission and kill projects, and they should indeed utilise some responsive-mode funding to gather and fund great ideas. However, there should be no need for all funded projects to be the top ranked ones in assessment — the coherent-whole can tolerate important gaps being filled by good-enough and quick-enough research, development and demonstration[ii].

The research and innovation aspects of the response to the pandemic reminded government of just what managed programmes can deliver (see box).

Also of note within the budget, is welcome clarity on funding for full association to Horizon Europe  — or some other form of international collaboration. I rather sit on the fence as to whether full association is the best option  — it’s not a no brainer to me  — but that’s another story.

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         3. Regulation as an enabler

As a remain voter it can be difficult to see real positives to Brexit, but one area in which I believe we can do better outside the EU than within, is in the area of responsive and responsible enabling-regulation of innovation. Something my Innogen colleagues have played no small part in framing. Clearly this is not a simple topic as it impinges so obviously on matters related to international trade.

The existence of, and remit for, the Regulatory Horizons Council just makes me smile. “The Regulatory Horizons Council (RHC) is an independent expert committee that identifies the implications of technological innovation, and provides government with impartial, expert advice on the regulatory reform required to support its rapid and safe introduction.” A positive attitude for a change.

The Council has already reported on genetic technologies, and it is excellent to see Defra already moving to enable R, D&I on safe applications of gene editing in crops. Though some of us would like to have seen the UK also embrace gene-editing of livestock and indeed full GM being allowed to progress where safe, it is a clear demonstration of policy being driven by a different set of value judgments of the science, reflecting perhaps, that outcomes matter more than the technology you use to get there. Time will tell if such technologies gain consumer acceptance in the marketplace.

There are also Council Reports on Fusion Energy and Medical Devices. No doubt several more will follow.

Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3. Everyone has their own set of values and beliefs through which they look at these changes — yours are likely quite different to mine, but I hope I have explained why I’m the most optimistic about Innovation policy than I have been for a very long while — perhaps ever.

[i] A very helpful and interesting insider-perspective on the changes in MAFF and then Defra following Rothschild has been written up by Miles Parker see Parker, M. The Rothschild report (1971) and the purpose of government-funded R&D—a personal account. Palgrave Commun 2, 16053 (2016).

[ii] The first lesson of knowledge transfer “Show me it works”