Yorkshire’s research funding revolution

Amidst the noise of the Conservative Party leadership contest there is a quiet revolution in research funding taking place in the north, notes James Coe.

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

There is a paucity of research policy in the Conservative Party leadership contest.

Rishi Sunak is announcing funding which already exists. Liz Truss has retreated into reminding everyone Britain can be a science superpower. In the meantime, with no full-time science minister major issues like association to Horizon remain unresolved.

It is not because the candidates aren’t interested in research. Truss is leading legal action against the EU over Horizon. Sunak was the Chancellor, who despite his fiscal instincts, sanctioned the single largest uplift in research of any government ever. Both candidates have made vague gestures about using research to boost the economy. It’s just that it is all a bit flat.

Incentives

In some ways this isn’t either candidates’ fault. The road to winning a Conservative Party leadership contest does not run through detailed announcement of research policy. Leadership contests are poor forums for detailed policy debate but especially poor when it comes to the intricate and abstract world of research policy. It’s not that research policy is boring, it is that its complexity abrogates pithy soundbites.

To make the vague concrete involves trade-offs which would be unpalatable in a leadership contest. To level up the country with research implies that excellence everywhere will not be funded at any cost. To grow the UK’s science base involves investing in universities who have been variously cast as woke, out of touch, and mickey mouse. To run a campaign on fiscal prudence is to offer research funding to the forces of austerity. No amount of boosterism can simultaneously promise to grow the research base and cut public spending.

As a son of Yorkshire, I realise I am leaning into a stereotype of northerners being gloomy, but I am ultimately optimistic. The county of my birth is leading a quiet change in routes to research funding which could have significant implications.

Surprises

Buried within York and North Yorkshire’s devolution deal is some surprising progress on devolved R&D funding. Deep within the document beyond energy, buses, and efficiency, lies innovation, trade, and investment. Look beyond the trailblazers, skip past competitiveness and there is a curious section on BioYorkshire. BioYorkshire is itself an interesting private-public partnership but it is not the main character in this research story.

Paragraphs 109 to 110 set out a blueprint for a more decentralised form of R&D policy. The deal sets out that Innovate UK and UKRI will work with York and the North Yorkshire Combined Authority to support BioYorkshire. The document then promises a working group with UKRI, IUK, York, North Yorkshire Combined Authority, University of York, and other education and private providers.

A more decentralised system with a mixture of partners, providers, and private enterprise is a significant step for research funding policy. Tying the Government through its agencies to a devolved research programme is a step forward to realising a more local research agenda. Research policy can emerge locally while government can ensure this work fits within a national picture

This multi-partner programme group has a broader responsibility to scope a bioeconomy in York and North Yorkshire. The group will advise on potential business cases with the aim of driving enough private investment for the cluster to become self-sustaining. Rather opaquely the group will also be charged with exploring “legal structures to maximise private sector investment and patient capital” and to explore “central or regional government investment opportunities.”

Decentralisation

It is not giving regional authorities total autonomy but it is a more sophisticated approach to local research strategies than has been seen elsewhere. It is the combination of innovating within structures to deliver an innovation strategy which is exciting. This approach is eminently replicable whether it is life sciences in Liverpool or tidal power in Teesside. Success may not be that every cluster works but every attempt brings the country closer to a new policy approach.

Research policy is not only about what happens but who decides what happens. There may not be an enormous amount of votes in research but a leader who can grab local investment, decision making, and the creation of good jobs, will take votes with them. This isn’t only a question of whether this is the right policy but of political bravery in exploring an alternative future for research funding.

One response to “Yorkshire’s research funding revolution

  1. Inventive strategy (I despise the mealy-mouthed term ‘innovative’) driven by necessity, but risks local over-optimization towards very applied, specific fields based on existing research and infrastructure investments. Monocultures are inherently fragile things, especially localized monocultures.

Leave a Reply