Published: 23 March 2022
UKRI is the UK’s biggest funding body for research, and this is the organisation’s first 5-year strategy since its formation in 2018. The strategy is structured around six objectives aimed at trying to ensure the UK has the people, institutions, infrastructures and partnerships to be a “global science superpower with the world’s most innovative economy”. A number of key priorities have been identified within each objective, underpinned by government ambitions. Detailed plans outlining how these priorities will be delivered will be published later in the year in the UKRI Corporate Plan and the Strategic Delivery Plans of the nine research councils.
- The “world-class people and careers” objective sets out how the UK will attract talented people and teams through world-leading postgraduate research and fellowship programmes, signposting of opportunities, appropriate visa mechanisms, collaborative training, innovative public dialogue, youth and educational engagement, and community participation (p16)
- This will involve developing the breadth of skilled people and teams through incentivising diverse, flexible careers, where people can move easily between disciplines and sectors; improved support; open research and reduced bureaucracy. Priority three involves a positive research culture as set out in the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy. The UKRI will establish the UK Committee on Research Integrity (UK CORI) to promote and support high integrity in research and share good practice (p16)
- Under the objective of “world-class places”, the first priority is to strengthen research and innovation clusters and partnerships, including in areas of low R&D density, and connecting academia, research institutes, business, investors, policy-makers, the public and charities. UKRI will support the development of a new model of Innovation Accelerators to invest in high-quality projects to grow R&D strengths, attract private investment and boost innovation diffusion (p20)
- Priority two aims to catalyse investment from the private sector. UKRI will balance project funding with strategic long term investment, including through partnership with devolved HE funding bodies. It will “make the difficult choices” needed to support a balanced portfolio of investments across HE Institutions (HEIs), Research Institutes, Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs), Independent Research Organisations (IROs), businesses, Catapults, campuses and clusters. Innovative businesses will be empowered to grow and scale through services, such as Innovate UK KTN and Catapults, innovation loans, and venture growth investments. Priority three aims to secure modern and accessible infrastructures for research and innovation, including data infrastructures (p21)
- Under the “World class ideas” objective, the first priority is to invest in a diverse and dynamic portfolio of high-quality, creative research and innovation. UKRI says it will “champion an agile and responsive research and innovation funding environment”. It commits to building greater agility into funding schemes that can adapt quickly to changing circumstances and priorities. Another priority is to incentivise and remove barriers to multi- and inter-disciplinary working (p25)
- Under the “World-class innovation” objective, the priority will be to deliver the skills, finance and collaboration opportunities needed to boost private sector investment. This will entail growing UKRI’s investments in innovation, fuelled by Innovate UK’s support for UK businesses, aligned with Research Council domain expertise and business collaboration, and Research England’s knowledge exchange programmes in England (p29)
- Priority two is to accelerate translation, commercialisation and knowledge exchange by strengthening support for the commercialisation of research through a UKRI-wide funding framework and through Catapults and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. It will also develop new ways of financing innovation through investor partnerships bringing in private sector investors and investment into the innovation cycle much earlier (p30)
- The “World-class Impacts” objective commits to addressing major national and global challenges through strategic themes; building a green future, better health, aging and wellbeing, tackling infections, building a secure and resilient world, creating opportunities and improving outcomes. UKRI will develop new funding opportunities for multidisciplinary programmes aligned to the strategic themes and establish new, national programmes to deliver UK strategic advantage in key technology such as AI, Quantum technologies, clean technologies and Engineering Biology (p34)
- In partnership with government departments, agencies, devolved governments, industry and the public, UKRI will advance research and innovation underpinning key high growth sectors such as the creative industries, space16 and life sciences (p36)
- Objective six is a “world-class organisation” which empowers talented people to collaborate and thrive, is efficient, effective and agile and catalyses change and impact through partnership and leadership (p41)
Implications for HE governance:
Science and technology has the lead role in an array of government ambitions, from its Plan for Growth to the levelling up agenda, so much so that the new National Council for Science and Technology (NSTC) will be chaired by the Prime Minister.
As part of the recognition of its central and vital role, the government has pledged to reach R&D intensity of 2.4 per cent of GDP in the UK by 2027. Part of this is a rise in public investment in R&D to a record £20 billion by 2024–25. The aim is to attract more than double that in private sector R&D investment.
For the higher education sector, this recognition and increased investment will be welcomed and governing bodies will be keen to ensure that their research departments, institutes, partnerships and collaborations are able to take advantage of the opportunities it could offer.
The UKRI report sets out six broad brush strategies and highlights the priorities within each. As might be expected from a strategy document, there are few details of how various ambitions will be realised, beyond intentions to “strengthen”, “empower” “catalyse”, “support” and “champion”.
However, there are commitments to an agile and responsive research and innovation funding environment, infrastructure investment and reduced bureaucracy.
Levelling up is a focus under the “world-class places” objective. UKRI sees its role in this as “connecting academia, research institutes, business, the investor community, policy-makers, the public and charities” to strengthening research and innovation clusters, including in areas of low R&D intensity.
Greater connectivity across disciplines, sectors, and geographies to foster creative ideas is also highlighted. Universities are accustom to fostering collaboration and pursuing multi- and inter-disciplinary research. What UKRI promises is more agile funding systems to allow these to flourish.
From a university governance perspective, it may be useful to note the list of “technology families” where the UK has a global advantage, and that the government and UKRI regard as significant areas of opportunities; advanced materials and manufacturing; AI, digital and advanced computing; bioinformatics and genomics; engineering biology; electronics, photonics and quantum technologies; energy, environmental and climate technologies; robotics and smart machines.
Similarly the themes listed under “world-class impacts” set out where high level interest will be focused, such as building a green future, better health, ageing and wellbeing and tackling infections. UKRI says it will develop new funding opportunities for multidisciplinary programmes aligned to these themes and establish new, national programmes in key technology such as AI, Quantum technologies, clean technologies and Engineering Biology.
According to commentators, the big challenge will be stimulating private sector investment – both to realise the economic benefits of public investment in research and to meet the 2.4 per cent target.
There are two reports pending that will have a bearing on the work of UKRI and the research and innovation landscape as a whole. The Nurse Review of all aspects of the research, development and innovation sector, is due to publish its findings shortly, and the Grant review of UKRI, scheduled to report by summer, will consider the efficiency, efficacy, and accountability of the organisation as a whole.
Later this year, the UKRI will publish its Corporate Plan together with the Strategic Delivery Plans of the nine Councils, detailing how the UKRI strategy will be delivered. This presumably is the nitty-gritty of how the various priorities will be driven forward and on what basis funding will be allocated, the kind of detail which university research departments and governance will be most interested in.
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