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Engaging with a Truss government on research

The Johnson-era arguments around "levelling up" are now uncertain. James Coe asks how we make the case for research to the current crop of Conservatives
This article is more than 1 year old

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The sector should take Liz Truss both seriously and literally.

That is to say that her central economic policy belief that growing the economy requires tax cuts paid for by reduction in public spending is keenly believed, not just an election pledge.

And she is serious in taking measures which are electorally and fiscally unpopular to achieve those ends.

Under a Boris Johnson government the conventional wisdom was that continually talking about the ways in which research creates jobs, economic growth, and improves places, was the means of getting government onside. While there is still a levelling up secretary in place it’s clear Truss’ version of levelling up is very different to her predecessors’.

Her view is much more free market orientated where to allow individuals to prosper will ultimately bring opportunity, and therefore level up, places with them.

The day to day

The coherency of this belief aside it presents a different set of communication and policy challenges. Essentially, the task for universities will be to demonstrate that their work drives economic growth aside from the distributional benefits of doing so. This is particularly important when there are suggestions that research funding could be subject to spending cuts. This would hamper growth, but the government know this. It is a political calculation that as research is not widely understood it will attract less public backlash if cut.

So, to make the case for research as an engine of growth. The central concern of universities in this era should be on promoting the importance of research as an economic good which needs properly funding as it faces dual threats of public funding cuts, and a home secretary who has expressed scepticism about some international students. For example, in the clamour to demonstrate the levelling up benefits of research there has been less discussion of core research funding. The R&D Roadmap committed to exploring the possibility of full economic cost of research but there has been little progress or pressure on this front.

Any pivot should be about the continual explanation of how research touches the real economy. Research is of course about the breakthroughs but it is also the relentless pursuit of the brilliantly banal. It’s the partnerships with business which bring efficiencies, the marketers, advertisers, and illustrators, and its engineers, chemists, and all those whose work is at the face of business. It’s the parts which might never make the front of a prospectus but make the economy tick over. It’s difficult to expect government to intuitively understand how research is an economic good unless it’s made tangible.

Labs and Labour

Truss has also surprised some with early announcements of infrastructure investment. In particular, signalling support for an electrified line between Liverpool and Hull which had been all but dismissed by the previous administration. Again, if universities are to pivot their engagement to a more growth at all costs agenda now is the time to be savvy on capital asks.

One of the areas holding back growth in universities is a lack of high-quality lab space particularly outside of London and the South East. This was exposed in Covid but now would be the right time to set out why more space is needed, the business it can stimulate, and the jobs in supply chains it will create.

At a recent Labour Party Conference roundtable team Wonkhe discussed how universities can scale up businesses as well as spin them out. If universities are serious about supporting economic growth there is a greater scope for them to hold on to their burgeoning businesses for longer, nurture them, fund them, and when they are large enough to spin out to put in place the incentives which will allow them to flourish. In many cases this may mean taking a small equity stake.

Alongside these wider economic themes there will be the initiatives which universities may benefit from. Investment zones could bring one off capital investment opportunities, but universities will need to start making the case to be part of it now. Freeports are still in place, and nobody has quite worked out how to square low tax zones, economic growth, and an innovation economy. And Britain’s post-Europe place in the world is still uncertain and universities can be a path to new partners.

Research is a long, patient game which in turn requires long, patient funding. A frequent criticism of the government’s approaches to research has been piecemeal reform and frequent changes of direction. Universities should be cautious in changing their whole approach as the government changes but demonstrating that they can be a willing, and at times helpful, partner can generate goodwill where it has been seldom seen.

3 responses to “Engaging with a Truss government on research

  1. Weighing a pig, does not make it heavier. Spending more / a higher percentage of GDP on Research and Development does not make the UK richer.

    Even a belief that an increase in economic growth rates is the answer to increased prosperity does not make it a true fact.

    Even more foolish is to believe that spending more money on R and D at Universities or increasing the number of undergraduate students results in greater economic wealth.

    Historically, Britain has enjoyed its greatest economic success during the Industrial Revolution and the era of the British Empire. R & D at British Universities did not seem to be particularly significant in this success.

    1. I suppose, in some ways, the economy of today is quite different to that of Victorian Britain

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