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Here’s how we’ll make Plan B work for Britain

Christopher Smith shares UKRI’s ongoing work on Horizon and plan B - and how universities, businesses, government, and their agencies can put collaboration and internationalism back at the heart of research and innovation
This article is more than 1 year old

Christopher Smith is UKRI's International Champion, and Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

What does a worldwide partnership of collaboration in research and innovation look like?

It is a system that is dynamic and diverse. A system that connects researchers, businesses, policymakers, and investors across national borders, enabled by mobility at all career stages. A system that brings people together to tackle global challenges.

Participation in EU framework programmes delivers much of this vision for the UK. And, along with many in the UK government and research and innovation communities, I hope that we can continue to realise this vision through association to Horizon Europe.

But if that is not possible, we must realise that vision in other ways.

The old normal

James Coe hit the nail on the head last week when he described the challenge of creating domestic alternatives to Horizon Europe as “nothing short of rebuilding a multi-national research infrastructure that spans business, universities, and the wider third sector.”

It’s a considerable task, especially given the short timespan available to do it. But the existence of UKRI makes it possible to rise to this challenge. We have to see it also as an opportunity to strengthen the diversity and health of the UK R&I system, and to keep the UK front and centre in global research and innovation.

BEIS have published a broad roadmap which is now being taken forward in detail by those who would deliver it, UKRI among them. We are working closely with BEIS to support the government’s intention to create new programmes that enable inward and outward mobility, help businesses to collaborate with partners in Europe and around the world, and boost the UK’s productivity. Global collaborations play an important role in accessing future international supply chains and supporting the global growth and scaling of businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.

In thinking about a new programme investing in ‘end to end’ innovation, we envision that it could be challenge-based, responding to industry needs as well as economic priority areas for the UK government. It could harness the collective science, technology and innovation strengths across diverse sectors and disciplines, to stimulate long-term industrial transformation and capabilities. This would build on what we have learned from both Horizon Europe’s Pillar 2 and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). We know that ISCF has been of huge benefit to UK businesses, and SMEs in particular.

The road map announced the scale up of existing Innovate UK bilateral R&D programmes such as the Smart programme, Investor Partnerships and Scale up/growth support by Innovate UK EDGE (all of which have a particular focus on late-stage SMEs), plus the Eureka network which provides via clusters the opportunity to support collaborations between businesses of all sizes with universities and research organisations.

Of course, support for university-business collaboration and knowledge transfer goes further than Innovate UK. Multiple parts of UKRI provide a multi-faceted web of support that is uniquely characteristic of our organisation. Formula funding, for example, enables us quickly to pump investment into universities for talent and research stabilisation. We know world-class infrastructure can be key for SMEs and startups to develop new products and services, to upskill their workforce and make informed decisions on acquiring their own equipment or buying access, so it follows that boosting our investment into UK R&I infrastructure across multiple research councils can provide even more capability and expertise for industry to access. And we’d also seek to build on the proven impact of UKRI programmes supporting levelling up.

A new normal

In designing domestic alternatives to Horizon Europe’s prestigious talent programmes we’re aiming to attract and support diversity of applicants, including business-based talent. The alternative talent funding offer must include a flexible and open scheme, aligned with UKRI’s vision to recognise and reward researchers from different backgrounds, which includes individuals and teams from outside academia.

Informed by our experience with existing talent programmes, Plan B programmes should reach beyond the current UKRI and Horizon Europe talent programmes, fostering collaborations with businesses and breaking academic research silos, for example, building on the way that Future Leaders Fellowships support people in academia, business and other research environments, and interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and innovation, including the movement of people and projects between sectors. That has benefits for the next generation of researchers and innovators, providing opportunities to gain new skills, competencies and experiences in a wide range of environments. We hope that an alternative talent funding offer will facilitate research and innovation collaborations between academia and business, supporting cross-sector mobility.

All this is an ongoing conversation, of course, in which the input of our sectors, communities and stakeholders is key and is being heard. We are keenly aware, too, of the role Horizon Europe has played and the concern that connections will be lost, inevitably creating a context of anxiety. In this context the Roadmap’s announcement of support for Third Country Participation gives access to two-thirds of Horizon Europe calls.

Here at UKRI we are absolutely committed that in any scenario, collaboration and internationalism are at the heart of research and innovation. We know how vital this is. It’s explicit in our mission, our vision, our strategy and our planning. Even if the mechanisms have to change, the mission will remain, and we can look forward to that future.

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