Thoughts on the UK Research and Development Roadmap

In today’s blog Sophie Lowry, Strategic Research Executive at Edinburgh Research Office writes about the UK Government’s Research and Development roadmap.

It continues to be a busy year for research policy announcements. In early July, the UK Government released its long awaited Research and Development roadmap. This 60-page document upholds the UK Government’s budget promise to increase public research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024/25, a welcome, and particularly important, commitment in the current context of a global pandemic.

Many of the themes alluded to in my last blog are explained in some detail in the published roadmap. There is consideration of the place and ‘levelling up’ agenda, the need for both talent and diversity in the UK research and innovation arena, a desire to improve the research culture and the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) style body. There is also reference to the UK’s role in international research and innovation collaborations.

I explore these focus areas (and a few extras!) below:

Place/levelling up

The roadmap commits to publishing a UK R&D Place Strategy, in collaboration with the devolved administrations later this year as well as establishing a ministerial R&D Place Advisory Group. There are hints to increasing local decision-making on R&D investment as well as ‘improving the local footprint’ of ‘national R&D funders’.

Diverse talent

A further strategy is promised – this time an ‘R&D People and Culture Strategy’, aimed to ensure the most talented and diverse teams come and stay in the UK. An Office for Talent will be set up to coordinate attracting global science, research and innovation talent to the UK. The roadmap also alludes to doing more to encourage people to move between academia, industry and other sectors.

Research Culture

To ensure global talent wants to come to the UK, there is an emphasis on improving the research culture. Among other things, ambitions include embedding equality, diversity and inclusion within the R&D system, which looks as though it will be spearheaded by UKRI in the first instance.

A ‘Healthy R&D System’

The UK R&D system is diverse and as result of this, complex, which can lead to what some might call ‘red tape’. There is commitment to ‘revitalising’ the whole system, partially through a ‘major review of research bureaucracy and methods in UKRI’, a follow-on from the programme which delivered the removal of Pathways to Impact on grant application forms. In the same vein, we see an emphasis on open research practices, a mention of shifting to ‘more modern methods of peer review and evaluation’ and ‘tackling the problematic uses of metrics in research’, all of which could potentially have a major impact on the future of research policy in the UK (including future REF exercises, a potential re-balance of QR-related funding and more direct funding and the question around the overall sustainability of research funding in the UK).

ARPA

While there is some mention of this, there isn’t a great deal of detail. It echoes the announcement in the Queen’s Speech that a new funding agency modelled on the US Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency will be established with an investment of at least £800 million. We know that the aim is that this agency will fund ‘high-risk, high-reward science.’ The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has just closed its formal inquiry into the nature and purpose of this new body so perhaps it’s likely that more details will emerge following this.

International collaborations

The document is keen that the UK remains a partner of choice for international R&D collaborations and suggests a desire to fully associate to Horizon Europe and Euratom R&T if a fair and balanced deal can be achieved. It recognises that the UK Government may need to deliver alternative funding opportunities if there is a delay in reaching association status. There is also a mention of the 0.7% GDP target for ODA spend but not a particularly clear commitment to continue this level of spend, which perhaps is unsurprising given the recent announcement to merge the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office.

Big societal challenges/potential areas of policy focus

The roadmap commits the UK Government to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 so we can probably expect to see funding for research into disciplines relative to this. In addition, the document refers to other fairly big ticket items – ‘investing in world-class assistive technology, building resilience in our economy, environment and society, and improving security, productivity and quality of life for all’. There is also talk of funding large-scale ‘moonshot’ projects but again the details on what this might look like are somewhat lacking.

Innovation/productivity

We know that productivity has been an issue for the UK to contend with for a while now. The document sets out that it will establish an ‘Innovation Expert Group’ which will be tasked with looking at strengthening the whole innovation system. As part of the improvement to the innovation infrastructure, the document hints several times at potential changes to the existing Catapult Network to catalyse collaborations between industry and existing R&D infrastructure, such as universities, Catapult or Innovation Centres and public service research establishments (PRSEs). Interestingly a quick word count shows mentions of ‘business’ within the roadmap far outnumber those of ‘university’. This could well suggest that industrial funding and collaborations will be a prominent feature of the R&D landscape for some time.

Next Steps

So like so many things just now we can continue to expect fairly significant shifts in research and development policy in the not-so-distant future, particularly with the upcoming comprehensive spending review in the autumn. As James Wilsdon states so eloquently in his Twitter thread analysis: “Hopefully the journey from roadmap to ‘comprehensive plan’ will now be guided by an open, consultative and evidence-informed process”. We will certainly watch this space.

If you would like to contribute to this consultative process, BEIS is inviting responses to the roadmap via an online survey, available until 12 August.

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Sophie Lowry

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