The UK Government has published a new roadmap to establishing a future UK R&D strategy to make the UK a research and science superpower.

The announcement reaffirms the Government’s pledge to double public R&D investment to £22 billion a year by 2025 in the March 2020 Budget, and initiates a consultation on how this should be allocated setting out a number of key questions as the Government develops it’s R&D plan, these include:

  • How can we best increase knowledge and understanding through research, including by achieving bigger breakthroughs?
  • How can we maximise the economic, environmental and societal impact of research through effective application of new knowledge?
  • How can we encourage innovation and ensure it is used to greatest effect, not just in our cutting-edge industries, but right across the economy and throughout our public services?
  • How can we attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people to R&D roles?
  • How can we make R&D for everyone?
  • How should we ensure that R&D plays its fullest role in levelling up all over the UK?
  • How should we strengthen our research infrastructure and institutions in support of our vision?
  • How should we most effectively and safely collaborate with partners and networks around the globe?
  • How can we harness excitement about this vision, listen to a wider range of voices to ensure R&D is delivering for society, and inspire a whole new generation of scientists, researchers, technicians, engineers, and innovators?

Over the coming months the Government will seek to work with industry and stakeholders to develop answers to the questions set out in the roadmap into a comprehensive R&D plan. This includes a high-level questionnaire seeking to bring in a wide variety of voices into this discussion.

The techUK response

“techUK was pleased to see the Government zero in on key questions around applied research, the commercialization of the UK’s world leading research and how R&D and innovation can contribute to regional growth.

Creating a better balance of where research investment is located across the regions and nations of the UK will be vital to our economic growth. As increasing the deployment of innovation throughout the country will be essential to creating  the high growth and resilient economic clusters we will need for a full recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.

It is also welcome to see an enhanced focus on talent, bigger bets and blue skies research as this will help open doors to the worlds brightest and best as well as making the UK an attractive place for those who want to continue to operate at the cutting edge of research and science.

The tech sector sits at the fulcrum where world leading research becomes the next generation of products and services, with many of the UK’s most successful tech companies having their roots in our world-class university and research institutes. However, while the sector has benefited from the UK’s research excellence, it has often been third-party actors, VCs, and investors in the City of London which have driven commercialisation, not the UK’s R&D ecosystem.

In short, the UK’s current R&D strategy is very good at supporting the “R” in R&D, but lags in the development of that research into new companies, products, and services.

The R&D roadmap recognises this and poses focused and detailed questions on how to a greater emphasis on the development side of R&D while also seeking to address important questions such as how we can build a better, more equitable R&D ecosystem and attract and train the best talent in research and science.”

The CBI response

The CBI was somewhat more critical in its response.

“While covering a lot of content the roadmap does not present a strategy with clear priorities. The document asks a lot of questions but there is little indication on courses of action.

There are positive noises in the document on some member priorities including:

  • Reforming public procurement - “strengthening government’s role as a customer of innovation and through public procurement practices.”
  • Minimising bureaucracy in the public funding system - “Improve our funding and decision-making approaches, embracing light-touch, ultra-fast and flexible processes with minimal red tape.” “The R&D ecosystem is complex and we should look to ensure that it is coherent and efficient”
  • Focussing on a few large scale “moonshot” projects - “Take “bigger bets” – on a small number of ambitious programmes and institutes in genuinely transformational areas of science and research.”
  • Embedding business views in to policymaking - “We will set up an Innovation Expert Group to help review and improve how we support the whole innovation system, including strengthening the interactions between discovery research, applied research, innovation, commercialisation and deployment.”
  • Strengthening international partnerships – “We will develop a new funding offer for collaboration to ensure the UK can further benefit from the opportunities of international scientific partnerships. This will create new opportunities for collaboration, trade, growth and influence.”
  • Identifying technological strengths – “Embed horizon-scanning to identify early and prepare to exploit our emerging strengths effectively”

The document also reaffirms existing commitments on ARPA and R&D tax credits:

  • R&D tax credits - “Building on the announcement at Budget 2020 to increase the Research and Development Expenditure Credit (RDEC) rate and review the scope of qualifying costs for R&D tax reliefs, we will ensure that the regime reflects the changing reality of R&D and remains globally competitive.
  • ARPA – “We will invest at least £800 million to set up a unique and independent funding body for advanced research, modelled on the US’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). This body will back breakthrough technologies and basic research by experimenting with new funding models across long-term time horizons.”

However the importance and role of businesses is underplayed and underprioritized throughout the strategy. There is recognition and support for entrepreneurs and start-ups, however the roadmap pays relatively little attention to supporting wider businesses to invest in R&D – which make up the majority. In particular there is minimal content focussing on how to improve support for late-stage development, commercialisation and adoption which businesses consistently highlight as a key gap in the UK’s support offer.”