Universities can help drive national innovation vision

The UK Innovation Strategy is out with bold ambitions and big questions of universities’ role in it, says James Coe

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

At 116 pages long, the government’s Innovation Strategy deserves a full reading. The Secretary of State’s foreword sets out that the primary purpose of the strategy is to let business know that the government supports innovation.

The policy proposals, regulation tackling, and future plans, spin out from this premise that the key to economic growth is more intensive R&D activity from business. This is done with a “greener, healthier, more prosperous UK” in mind within the context of a new relationship with the European Union.

Creating the future of innovation begins by defining it today. In part one, we canter through some interesting examples of innovation and arrive at some broad objectives for the innovation ecosystem – to support wellbeing, quality of life, security, and strengthen the UK’s influence in the world.

To achieve these goals, innovation is viewed here as a key economic tool to grow productivity, wages, and GDP. In order to access these tools, the strategy sets out that government can facilitate greater access to capital for innovators, build on existing assets, leverage international partnerships, and attract innovators to the UK through visa regulation.

Levelling up

All of this comes with the lessons learned from Covid-19, which range from adopting an innovation-first approach, investing broadly in innovation, using public procurement more strategically, acting at speed, and bringing together various disciplines in the face of global challenges.

These challenges make clear that government sees innovation in universities as most impactful where it is joined to business behind a clear civic mission; in this case relief from Covid-19.

One of the lessons not mentioned here is that a lot of the work around Covid-19 was possible because universities could tap into existing research and redirect existing resources. For the sector, we still have a case to make that patient long-term investment into innovation in universities is perhaps a less glamorous but important path to growing the country’s R&D base.

From this there is also some geographic specificity within the strategy. At a local level, it makes clear that levelling up is about using public investment to cluster together R&D-intensive activity. The theory being that this will increase the agglomerate benefits of R&D such as employment and private investment within an area.

Nationally, this is accompanied by a shifting of national programmes and regulation to support growth, and some grand scene setting towards the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), Levelling Up White Paper, Net Zero Strategy, and the Digital Strategy.

It articulates a sense that regional growth is the centre of a levelling-up strategy of which R&D forms a scaffold of innovation, business attraction, and employment and opportunity.

Areas of strength

There is an emergent economic plan around R&D that boils down to three areas. The first is making the most of the latent strengths of existing areas with support from government. This is not trying to make every area like the Golden Triangle but a starting point that some places have natural and historic strengths and weaknesses which can be developed.

The second is that this strategy sees the state as an enabler of local economic activity while local government has a role in articulating, attracting, and agglomerating businesses in an area.

The third is that prosperous places are key to individual and national wealth. On the one hand, this is about having strong supply chains which have broad impact and employment practices which move more people into R&D. On the other, it is an acknowledgement that to reach 2.4 per cent GDP investment in R&D requires a greater density of local R&D assets.

Implicit in the strategy are trade-offs that the university sector will find difficult. There are areas of strength identified where universities may feel cut out if they do not match up. There are no doubt debates to come on the cost and nature of the relationship with European research partners.

Looking beyond research, as the Augar review response looms into view at the CSR, it would be disjointed policy making to reduce the capacity of universities while simultaneously increasing the demand for research capacity.

If the strategy comes to fruition, there are reasons to be optimistic that it could strengthen the R&D ecosystem and position universities as central to the economic prosperity of the whole UK. There is an opportunity to grasp, threats to be negotiated, but within this is a tangible sense of what an R&D-led economy could mean for the sector and society more broadly.

James Coe’s The New University is published by 404ink and out in September

One response to “Universities can help drive national innovation vision

  1. James – what does your forthcoming book cover? Focused on innovation or broader concepts? I liked the article. Would be interested in any views on micro-innovation clusters or very small / highly localised innovation networks.

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