This article is more than 5 years old

Shaping university research and knowledge exchange

Executive Chair David Sweeney introduces the work of Research England.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Sweeney is Executive Chair of Research England.

The UK leads the world in research and innovation. With just 0.9% of the world’s entire population, 2.7% of global research and development (R&D) expenditure, and 4.1% of researchers, the UK accounts for a whopping 10.7% of global citations and 15.2% of the world’s most highly-cited articles.

A major factor in this success is our world-leading higher education sector. Generating £95bn annually in gross economic output for the country, universities are key influencers in their local and regional contexts and well as major players on the national and world stage.

Supporting research

Research England’s role in all of this is to create and sustain the conditions in English universities to enable this success. By working with the sector to understand its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges, we provide targeted, institution-focussed funding that unlocks the sector’s potential and creates genuine impact and value from public investment in universities.

A major component of this is our quality-related research (QR) funding, which is allocated on the basis of research excellence. This funding lets universities invest flexibly and strategically, which helps them build capacity, support novel or high-risk areas of research, and leverage investment from business, charities and elsewhere.

Investing in this way, we help universities to take a genuinely long-term view of their research priorities. This long-term view is essential to strengthening our national research endeavour and enhancing the significant contribution that the HE sector makes to the wider economy and society.

With the expertise and capability to plug into all aspects of our economy and society, universities are uniquely placed to deliver on national research and innovation agendas. By forming and building strong partnerships locally, nationally and globally, they deliver substantial economic and social impact from the work they do, supporting the virtuous cycle that attracts increased investment into R&D required to deliver on the government’s industrial strategy and 2.4% R&D target.

Innovation and growth

To help universities strengthen and build partnerships, we are increasing our investment in knowledge exchange, with significant growth in Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) in 2018-19 and new support for world-class commercialisation projects through the Connecting Capability Fund.

These funds enable universities to build the capability and capacity to strengthen their interactions with business and the wider world, generating real-world impact from their research, teaching and knowledge exchange activities. The forthcoming Knowledge Exchange Framework, once implemented, will help further increase the efficiency and effectiveness of these investments.

Knowledge exchange is a key area where we plan to build a deeper understanding of how our investments create diverse benefits to research, to innovation and enterprise, and to students. We are looking forward to working closely with our colleagues in the Office for Students to develop compelling evidence of these benefits, as well as collaborating on many other areas of shared interest such as university efficiency, sustainability, infrastructure and teaching/research assessment.

Research assessment remains central to what we do, and work continues in earnest towards the next exercise with panels now beginning to meet and develop criteria and guidance for REF2021. The exercise continues to evolve as we implement the Stern Review’s 2016 recommendations and we look forward to ongoing discussion with the sector as the exercise takes shape over the coming months and years.

The REF itself remains a critically important area of joint working with our equivalent funding bodies in the devolved nations, who remain committed to working closely with us. By engaging with them regularly and by working with others across UK Research and Innovation, we will continue to explore areas of collaboration that transcend the research and knowledge exchange contexts of the four nations.

Working in partnership

We are pleased, therefore that the devolved funding bodies and the Office for Students have all accepted formal observer status on our Council, which has met three times so far in shadow form. Through rigorous and challenging discussion, our Council will draw on their diverse talents and expertise to help us shape our strategy and priorities for the coming years.

Looking more broadly across UK Research and Innovation, our role in supporting university success complements the disciplinary focus of the research councils and the business focus of Innovate UK. It is only by looking across research communities, business and innovation communities and the higher education sectors of all four nations that UK Research and Innovation can take a genuinely comprehensive view of the UK’s research and innovation endeavours.

By working with universities and through our partnerships with the devolved funding bodies, we will play our part in delivering on UK Research and Innovation’s priorities.

We look forward to working closely with all of our partner councils in UK Research and Innovation, with the devolved funding bodies, with the Office for Students, and with the higher education sector itself to continue to take our university sector from strength to strength, transforming lives, deepening our understanding of the world and creating lasting economic and social prosperity.

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