UK seeks to cement STEM superpower status but investment may be lacking
UK universities have a “unique role” to play in attracting international business investment and more needs to be done to strengthen links to benefit local communities, create jobs and amplify the global reach of UK research, a new report says.
The paper, outlining recommendations on attracting investment, comes as the UK launches a strategy to cement the UK as a “science and technology superpower by 2030”.
The 10-point plan includes ways to pursue transformational technologies, attract top talent and ensure they have the tools they need to succeed, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak suggested.
Writing in The Times this week, Sunak reiterated that the “race to create, develop and exploit… new technologies is global”, while he launched the Science and Technology Framework.
“I want to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030,” he wrote.
“I want to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030”
“It means we will be the world’s laboratory, home to the brightest scientists and most visionary entrepreneurs. It means pursuing a vision of science and technology that is about openness, connection and opportunity, in contrast to countries like China using it to exercise authoritarian control.”
Investment in R&D will reach £20 billion a year by the end of the parliament, the UK PM said, with Downing Street “changing the way government works” with the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.
“We have world-class strengths in research and the third biggest tech ecosystem in the world,” he added, launching a “long-term” plan to make science and technology the UK’s “new national purpose”.
The strategy “takes advantage of being outside the EU to do things differently and better, especially when it comes to regulation”, Sunak continued.
The measures are backed by over £370 million to “boost investment in innovation, bring the world’s best talent to the UK, and seize the potential of ground-breaking new technologies like AI”.
The role of universities in driving overseas investment into UK Research and Development report, by the HEPI and Midlands Innovation, describes a blueprint that could “unleash the levelling-up potential of the UK’s world-renowned higher education sector”.
The paper notes that, despite universities already playing an important role in attracting Foreign Direct Investment, the role can be “expanded and enhanced” through better collaboration with local partners and government.
Among the recommendations, the report states that the government should target the world’s top 200 R&D investors.
New government departments can be leveraged to launch a refreshed and more ambitious approach to securing FDI into science and technology, it suggested.
The report suggested that universities can ensure that FDI capture is integrated in university priorities by “consciously embedding plans for attracting foreign investment into existing research and university-wide strategies”.
Universities should continue to develop their approach to research commercialisation by consider how they might work together to aggregate their spin-out portfolios and “hunt in packs” to attract more significant investment.
“If the UK is to deliver substantial further economic growth while also levelling up, we must now get even better at welcoming new investment from overseas,” director of HEPI, Nick Hillman, said.
However, the new government strategy comes as UK research waits for Westminster to confirm the country’s association to the EU’s research funding program Horizon Europe. Researchers had expected the UK would seek association as soon as possible, after the Windsor Framework was announced.
“We must now get even better at welcoming new investment from overseas”
Sunak has not yet responded to next steps for the UK to rejoin the €95.5 billion science program. Instead, the government has announced an extension to the support provided to UK Horizon Europe applicants until the end of June 2023.
Science, Innovation and Technology secretary Michelle Donelan said on March 6, that the EU has not yet “made any proposals to address the financial terms of UK association”, pointing to transitional measures if association is not possible.
Chief executive and director of the Francis Crick Institute and Nobel Laureate, Paul Nurse, has already called for Plan B options to “fall by the wayside”.
A newly-released Review of the Research, Development and Innovation Organisational Landscape, led by Nurse, identifies “obstacles in the way of international collaboration”.
Brexit had the “unintended consequence” that the UK may no longer have access to Horizon, and “the involvement of UK-based researchers in European research consortia has already been damaged by this”, the report noted.
Additionally, it said some UK-based researchers from overseas indicated that country is no longer perceived as a welcoming place to work, and problems with immigration bureaucracy has led to some leaving the UK for jobs elsewhere.
The UK received 12.1% of all funds awarded under the ‘Horizon 2020’ program between 2014 and 2020, amounting to over €7bn, it noted.
The review reiterated that a substitutional domestically-funded program, even with similar levels of funding, “will not be able to reproduce the collaborative and reputational benefits” of Horizon Europe and associated research programs. The failure to implement association with Horizon has damaged the UK’s standing, and risks increasing the barrier to recruiting international talent, it added.
The RDI review also said the financial sustainability of the public research funding at universities needs to be “urgently addressed”.
While international student fees underpin UK university research, “care is needed as such sources are not always reliable and sustainable”, it said.
“While it is a strength of the UK’s higher education sector that it can attract large numbers of international students, over-reliance on this large but potentially volatile source of funds, especially if concentrated in specific countries, to underpin UK research, is a cause for concern.”
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