Universities need to make the case for devolved research funding

If universities do not prepare the arguments for devolving research funding to the regions no-one will make it for them, argues James Coe.

Imagine that you’re faced with the happy problem of allocating £22 billion of public funding for research every year by 2024-2025.

You could significantly increase funding to existing routes like UKRI. You might allocate hundreds of millions of pounds to a new blue skies-funding agency. You would almost certainly seek to enhance world-leading research strengths while addressing long-standing weaknesses in the research ecosystem.

Nevertheless, you may arrive at the conclusion that such an increase over such a relatively short period of time is too large for a centralised research funding infrastructure to handle. Fortunately, the intellectual framework for decentralising a proportion of these funds (perhaps 25 per cent) already exists.

Richard Jones and Tom Forth in The Missing Four Billion, and Harry Farmer and Madeleine Gabriel in Innovation after Lockdown, have set out the parameters for a devolved funding settlement based on regional capacity and economic coherence. As a bonus, it would also meet the criteria for a wider levelling-up agenda.

This method could achieve wider agglomerate benefits. The devolution of funding could be targeted to take advantage of local capacity to crowd in additional private investment. In turn, this would help to generate greater absorptive capacity, support new public-private partnerships, and tie publicly-funded institutions like universities into a wider agenda of achieving 2.4 per cent spend of GDP on R&D.

As the legal frameworks for varied devolution agreements already exist, it would also seem to be a mechanism that need be neither slow nor bureaucratic. At this point, we may feel we are only a roundtable of partners away from putting a compelling case to government on new powers, new funds, and a new era for the civic university.

Pivot!

Could universities adapt to such an agenda? The incentives universities currently operate under are often not place based. Our research is rewarded for international recognition above local impact, there is significant concern about the loss of European funding, and in a post-Brexit Britain international partnerships are likely to be hallmarks of both institutional and domestic success on the world stage.

These barriers are not insurmountable (albeit Brexit is a worry for all of us), and with funding like Strength in Places we can already see some congruence.

Yet devolution is not only a matter of fiscal alignment but of political direction. Pinning down who would be involved, how can we know it will work, and why now is the only way to consider devolved funding as a positive option.

Picturing who would be involved in a devolved funding settlement isn’t straightforward. In Liverpool City Region we’ve begun to crystallise our vision of a local R&D strategy. To make any argument to government first requires understanding the nature of our R&D assets, the relationships between research-intensive businesses and public sector bodies, and the ambition of civic partners for the type of research economy we collectively want to develop. Only then can we begin to understand how additional public funding might pull in more investment, create jobs, support new skills, and support the growth of the wider economy.

We should also be clear that more targeted investment in R&D will not be an economic panacea which can save jobs and level up on its own, particularly post-Covid, even if we focus on the foundational economy.

Roll out the round tables

To bring this picture into sharper focus, we can start employing some softer strategies which move us toward to the levels of collaboration a devolved funding settlement requires. For example, the Comprehensive Spending Review, whatever may happen to it, provided the opportunity for us to work on a joint submission with our combined authority and other partners.

If we can develop coherent programmes of work for fiscal events, share advice and intelligence, run feasibility projects across differing geographies together with public events to hammer out our shared R&D ambitions, we can give a taster of what collaboration could look like within a devolved framework.

We should accept the reality that though we may prefer local control of increased funds, we can achieve ambitious developments through other means. If full blown devolution is our end point we may get there through collaborative bids which demonstrate our willingness as partners, case studies of working across different geographies, and generally making a difference to the places we are based in the belief it is the right thing to do.

It might be that we look first toward a more decentralised model of decision-making between local and national government and funding agencies, before full devolution becomes a possibility. We should get in the car with the destination in mind before we start complaining about the traffic.

Ultimately, as I have previously argued on Wonkhe, few institutions can transform the economic fortunes of the places they are based like universities can. Embracing partners in supporting our areas to recover from the economic fallout from Covid-19, making a clear and evidenced case for urgent action, and developing our shared capacity to put additional funding to best use, should be the premise from which we argue for any further devolution.

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