How the Regional Innovation Fund will work

Lost amongst the noise of party conference and the heat of "woke science" the government launched a new R&D fund

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

The Westminster government has launched a £60m Regional Innovation Fund for what Executive Chair of Research England Jessica Corner says is for things which will “enable university initiatives, staff and facilities that support local innovation, commercialisation and economic growth.”

The calculation for how the spread of the funding is calculated is complex, so bear with me.

In Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, a share of the £60m total will be allocated through Barnett consequentials – in Scotland there have already been calls (not least from University of Glasgow vice chancellor Anton Muscatelli) for the Scottish government to pass Scotland’s full £5.8m share on to the sector, which isn’t a given.

In England, £48.8m of this funding is going to be allocated using the data provided for the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF). HEIF is used to support knowledge exchange activities between universities and the rest of society. It has been spent on things like initiatives to help businesses recover from Covid-19, resources to tackle financial scams, and funding for innovation in enterprise and fashion.

The purpose and calculation of RIF differs in that it is aimed at universities that perform well in research but are located in areas of otherwise low levels of research investment. RIF is calculated by adding a per cent modifier on to a university’s existing HEIF allocation. For example, providers in the West Midlands will receive a 53 per cent top up to their HEIF funds while providers in the East of England will receive only a three per cent top up.

UKRI has provided a handy worked example:

If you are a HEP in the East Midlands your RIF allocation is 22% of your main 2023-24 HEIF allocation (not including top cap pot or business/commercialisation supplement). Therefore, if your main 2023-24 HEIF allocation was £1,000,000 then you will receive an additional £220,000 in your RIF allocation.

HEIF is allocated through knowledge exchange metrics – but it is not geared specifically to local activity. It is calculated based on HESA returns on business interactions, financial data from OfS, and data from Innovate UK on knowledge transfer partnerships. This means RIF is being granted on the basis of activity that isn’t solely regional in its nature.

In fairness, given the money must be spent by the end of March 2024 it would be entirely impractical to develop, measure and allocate funds based on a new set of funding parameters. UKRI has explicitly said that the use of HEIF is to “reduce complexity in a short term pilot,” so RIF could be allocated differently in future (if rolled out for further years, that is).

However, of all the things in all the world that an additional slug of money could be spent on including just topping up existing funds, it’s encouraging to see levelling up policy and R&D policy coalesce in a meaningful way. The funding is flexible and providers will define what they deem to be their local and regional footprint. And unlike HEIF it can be used for capital as well as revenue, and it can be spent on anything furthering economic growth or productivity.

It’s not often that funding like this turns up unexpectedly. Potentially only a year out from an election now is a good opportunity for universities to demonstrate how they can turn government funding into local benefits with their partners.

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