How can UKRI stimulate local economies through place-based research funding?

The Strength in Places Fund (SIPF) – a new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) programme that targets funding to support significant economic growth in areas across the UK – straddles the domains of research and development, innovation and place.

There are relatively few examples of programmes, even internationally, that cover these broad domains; academic research and conceptual theories each address part of this terrain but seem sometimes to have contradictory perspectives or raise conflicting debates.

This is why, as part of my wider learning about how UKRI can engage with place, I benefited from discussion with a set of experts from different knowledge domains, organised by the University of Cambridge. The resulting academic think pieces are published today by the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation (CSTI).

The expert views probably raise as many questions as they answer; but I have found the differences of view and the questions these raise invaluable because their ideas will feed into our broader thinking about the intersection of research, development and innovation, and place. Indeed, some of the key questions raised are set out at the end of this blog and I would welcome comments on them.

Complexities and commonalities

Although the academics raise critical debates, there is also some key point of commonality: first, for a programme like SIPF to make a difference, experts agree that it needs to operate at scale and to be set in the context of broader, place-specific goals to reduce inequalities. Reducing inequalities in productivity is a profoundly important agenda, with implications for jobs, earnings and life chances.

We also need to be sensitive to the various systems – for example of customers, supply chains, or technologies – in which SIPF operates, to ensure it creates impact. This recognises that we want places to benefit and that their ability to benefit from our investment in research, development, and innovation will be affected by systems that may operate nationally or globally, not just locally. Moreover, we need to embrace experimentation and the inevitable risks of some failures, and recognise the need for nuance and specificity – not one-size-fits-all approaches.

However, academic experts raise complexities as well as commonalities. Different experts place differing emphasis on education, knowledge, research or innovation or industrial development as the most critical focus for reducing productivity inequalities. This raises issues about how the place lens sits in the UKRI portfolio – and also that there are many important things about place that are not the responsibility of UKRI.

Linked to this, different experts have different views on whether the UK research, development, and innovation system is sufficiently concentrated or distributed – and in what aspects. At the heart of the SIPF approach is the common focus and purpose across research, development and innovation and public and private sectors to make joint working effective. There is then the debate about where a SIPF approach can work, the different models it may take, and where other approaches may be needed. This suggests the need for more detailed data analysis, both within the SIPF programme and more broadly, about the scale, distribution, characterisation, and connectivity of research, development, and innovation capacity across the UK. This is a focus of a joint evidence programme (the Productive Evidence Programme) between CSTI and Research England.

Research and innovation investment is focused at the frontier – either of knowledge or industry endeavour – which may make it more globally mobile. Because of this, some experts stress that research, development, and innovation investment may be less likely to deliver benefits in a specific, intended place – this is a key question in SIPF evaluation.

UKRI can exercise its intelligence over the impacts of its decisions on places. Experts highlight that places also need to be able to compile intelligence and to form networks – particularly to understand the various systems that make it more or less likely for research, development, and innovation to make a difference locally. Successful – high productivity – places tend to be characterised by complexity and density in their knowledge and networks. This raises the issue of the nature of the joint endeavour needed between UKRI and places to make research, development, and innovation work for people across the country.

I would welcome your reflections on the key questions raised by our expert commentators below, please email any thoughts to KEPolicy@re.ukri.org. This isn’t a formal consultation but as the landscape is evolving, it would be particularly valuable to receive views by 31 October 2019.

Key questions

  1. Should research be an instrument of local economic development policy?
  2. Is research capacity sufficiently distributed – or concentrated – in the UK? Do we have the appropriate conception of research excellence for research and development and innovation and place policy? Is research capacity sufficiently leveraged for place agendas?
  3. How large does SIPF need to be to make a difference? How do we avoid one-size-fits-all solutions?
  4. Can research, development, and innovation collaboration with frontier firms ever improve spatial inequalities? Why are links between frontier firms and local small and medium-sized enterprises important – and what is UKRI’s role in improving these?
  5. How do we link the objective of SIPF to reduce inequalities appropriately with wider responsibilities to achieve that i.e. in local partners/bodies?
  6. research, development, and innovation development is complex, network-heavy and evidence-rich. What can UKRI do to improve and embed relevant local capabilities?
  7. Experimentation is critical in developing new policy approaches. Inherent in this is that some projects will fail. How do we both celebrate successes and tolerate and learn from failures?

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