The recent creation of the Westminster government’s department for science, innovation and technology is part of a stated ambitious plan to make the UK an “international technology superpower” by 2030.
The flurry of activity from the new entity, which includes a Science and Technology Framework, an International Technology Strategy and an AI White Paper, has shifted research and development (R&D) to the forefront, and is presenting governing boards with an opportunity to cast their eye over their strategic plans in these areas.
At one new university in the north of England, for example, governors and the senior leadership team recently attended a session devoted to all things research, including a presentation outlining the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and an explanation of the role of UKRI, Innovate UK and other research bodies, and the new department and government policies.
“We are in a consolidating and building phase of our research intensive journey and it is absolutely critical and central to our strategy that we continue that investment in research,” said the chair of governors. “It was important to have a whole session so that everyone understands the landscape we’re going forward in.”
Keeping governors informed about institutional research priorities and their progress within a complex ecosystem with multiple external players and funding pots is seen as vital. It is only then that the governing board can ensure that the right structures, support and levels of investment are in place to promote success.
One governor mentioned that at their institution, research performance is considered at least four times a year as part of strategic performance reviews. The board has also co-opted as a member one of the university’s senior researchers to give a view “from the frontline”.
Governors at a research intensive university in the north of England are kept up to date with developments by regular catch-ups with the pro-vice chancellor for research. Accountability days include presentation by heads of faculties on key data in research and teaching, including dashboard data on how many grants they have been awarded relative to earlier years and targets for that year.
“It’s not the governors’ job to demand that the university goes for this grant or for that grant or makes this or that partnership,” said a governor at the institution. “A governor’s job is to keep management’s feet to the fire to make sure they meet their targets. That can include a lot of interest in things outside of research, such as international student numbers, which is a massive cross subsidy to research.”
The reputational importance of research, in contributing to league table positions and attracting students, is also recognised by boards.
“The daily cuttings reports we receive about media coverage relating to the university are invariably about our research and these are important to our profile,” said the governor of a university in the south of England.
Governors shared the view that the new Science and Technology framework provided potential opportunities across the sector. However, while the document makes numerous references to private funding and business, it contains few mentions of academia – a point highlighted by the chair of governors at a new university. Another governor discerned a general inclination to give a bigger role to research institutes, which could signal that university research is less of a focus (although he acknowledges that there are often overlaps and links between the two types of institution).
Another governor at a university in the south of England commented on the omission of green energy and technology from the five critical technologies the Framework has selected: artificial intelligence, engineering biology, quantum technologies, future telecommunications and semiconductors, with around £250 million worth of new investment going to the first three areas.
A pledge in the Framework to shift more public funding for R&D to levelling up areas was also noted. But according to a governor at a new university in the north, the countervailing forces of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis in the region were having a dampening effect on the impact of this kind of relatively small investment.
The leveraging of private funds and financing from industry that the Framework promotes can also be harder in economically depressed areas.
“Many of our businesses here are not as big as they are in other parts of the country, “ she said. “Of course we’ll lever in what we can from business but there might be a need for the government to look at that. We feel that sometimes ministers do not get the scale of what needs to be done to really level up. As a board we will be looking at what the opportunities are and how we can use our investment in order to leverage in as much money as possible and make as much difference as possible.”
The Spring Budget announcement of new investment zones, which specifically involve universities, are seen as having potential: “There is one in our region and it will be £80 million so we are hoping that it will be something that the university is able to participate in and benefit from,” said a governor.
These opportunities aside, some governors do have concerns about the uncertainty of research funding streams generally and in particular about the long wait for clarity on the UK’s position in relation to Horizon Europe. It was hoped the new Northern Ireland protocol, the Windsor Framework, had cleared the way for progress. The government has at least said that its Horizon funding guarantee will be extended until June, although at the time of writing there has been no further announcement about what would happen after that point.
One governor at a research intensive university said: “You can ask questions of the vice chancellor or pro-vice chancellor and urge them to be as outward looking as possible but to a certain degree, until we know the framework we are operating in, it is very challenging. In the meantime, relationships overseas are withering. We were such a big player in Horizon. Everyone is hoping we can revert back but the Germans are now pretty dominant. The longer it takes and the more uncertainty there is the harder that becomes.”
Governors are also wary of a home-grown “Plan B” as an alternative to Horizon, as one commented: “A home-grown alternative would arguably cost more money because we would be reinventing the wheel and have to persuade European partners to get involved, when they have something much closer to home that is more beneficial to them and that they know how to be successful at. All the evidence is that collaborative research produces much better outcomes than national research and you’re much less likely to get that outside Horizon.”
Recent news that the UK has already achieved its target of 2.4 per cent of GDP investment in R & D has been welcomed by governors, with the proviso that this should not lead to a reduction in spending. The creation of the new department and the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s apparent enthusiasm for R&D, are assessed as a genuine commitment.
“The Treasury is very bad at recognising things that have value but with no immediate price benefit, but I think the investment in research is recognised as necessary and worthwhile,“ said a governor in the south. “There’s no sign that because of the target has been met, they are going to sit back and that has to be good news for universities.”