Research and development ideas from the Labour Party Conference you’re welcome to steal

James Coe spent Labour Party Conference gathering R&D policy ideas, and he doesn't mind who implements them

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

At the Labour Party Conference earlier this week team Wonkhe held a roundtable with universities, business representatives, civic partners and policy makers on how R&D can work as the means to grow the economy and spread prosperity.

We’ve collated a handful of the best ideas from the roundtable which any policymakers, putative governments, universities, businesses, and interested parties are welcome to steal and make their own.

For context, these discussions happened just after the mini budget which led to a rapid devaluation of the pound, a rapid increase in the cost of borrowing, and the rumblings of an inflationary crisis from which the country may take decades to recover. This is to say the mood was gloomy

Money, money, money

Perhaps the single biggest takeaway is that research is not just an education issue. Yes, it is about the technologies, innovations, and people which make the system operate. It is also about political choices between spreading prosperity everywhere or focussing on excellence wherever it may be. It’s about valuing the role of the state and public institutions in setting the ground for innovation to happen. And it’s about, or should be about, deciding to invest huge sums of public funding into solving the most pressing global challenges of our time.

Labour is committed to the redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation and through state intervention like getting to 100 per cent clean power by 2030. Labour released their industrial strategy this week on this theme. But, it’s a bit light and there is more that can be done.

If the Labour Party (or anyone else) is looking for further policy ideas here are five which came from the Wonkhe roundtable:

  • Devolve by default: begin from the premise that more power over local research agendas can be devolved but with sufficient oversight and safeguarding of international research agenda. This would be a system, as we have seen in North Yorkshire, where there are decentralised responsibilities for local growth programmes with a mix of national and local partners, while the overall national funding mix is maintained.
  • Address regional inequalities: the UK economy is unbalanced and research funding is similarly uneven. Use capital expenditure as a means to crowd in new investment opportunities in areas which have historically missed out on core research funding and private investment. For example, Liverpool has a tracked record of attracting private investment without coterminous public funds. Programmes like Liverpool’s pandemic institute which works across the universities, civic partners, and NHS, to predict and prevent future pandemics, is privately funded. The state should have a stake in this work to expand its impact and circulate its economic benefits.
  • Pick a long-term goal: business requires certainty before making big commitments on research. Pick a single plan with a handful of areas of excellence and build from there. Avoid a plethora of announcements and strategies which crowd out a central mission. The UK is not big enough to be world leading at everything but it can be world leading at some things. On that point…
  • The UK isn’t that big: wider infrastructure investment like transport can lever benefits to the wider research economy and in turn encourage growth. This can be particularly useful in setting up cross-country collaborative projects between universities. The civic agenda does not have to mean only and exclusively working within one town or region. Universities attract people, investment, and businesses, from across the UK and the world, and making our small nation even smaller would grow the impact of research
  • Scale up not just spin out: to provide the funding which encourages universities to incubate businesses for longer to grow to sufficient sizes before spinning them out of the organisation. Universities need greater incentives to take lower stakes in spin out businesses while themselves supporting academics who wish to pursue the commercialisation of their work.

S.O.S

At the our roundtable it was clear there is still a disconnect between the work of universities and how this work penetrates the wider economy. The government has leant more toward stimulating the private sector in innovation and Labour has set out the need to review current university spin out activity. One challenge is that there isn’t enough core infrastructure like high quality lab space. Part of this is the extent to which universities have effectively argued for the mundane but important core funding which makes more research work possible. Clearly, part of this is how universities make the case for their work

For the first time in recent memory it looks like Labour are more likely than not to form the next government. For the sake of the research agenda now is the time for universities to clearly and frequently make the case of how research can spread prosperity, grow the economy, and be a central plank of the UK’s place in the world.

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