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Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful

Published on: 9 July 2024

Writing for Research Professional, Vice-Chancellor Chris Day assesses what the change of government could mean for the university sector

The first change of government for 14 years marks a momentous occasion for the UK. Now that the anticipation is over, sectors and industries across the country will be clamouring to understand what this result means for them, and what their relationship with the new Labour government will look like.

For researchers, there are reasons to be feeling positive after years of ups and downs. During the Conservative government, we saw the highs of what positive research collaboration can look like: mobilising during the pandemic to support the NHS, shaping policies to help keep people safe, and rapidly developing life-saving vaccines.

However, we have also experienced the uncertainties of the period before the UK’s association to Horizon Europe was confirmed, Official Development Assistance (ODA)-related research funding being pulled at short notice and a rise in research security concerns amid increasingly volatile international relations.

Good signs

Early signs from the new government are good; there has been plenty of positive rhetoric about the role universities play in driving growth for the UK and reinforcing our position on the world stage––a welcome change in tone from some recent criticisms. And the latest analysis suggests R&D investment may already be close to 3 per cent of GDP, something that the Russell Group and others across the sector have been pushing for, and a good starting point for growth.

However, this positive tone now needs to be backed up with a robust, ambitious long-term funding strategy for research that doesn’t just talk the talk but delivers on its potential.

Our R&D investment is still failing to keep up with that of other comparable nations––Germany, for example, is aiming to reach 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2025, while South Korea’s is already at 5 per cent––and a longer-term commitment to a healthy R&D budget would be a good indicator of how bold the new government is willing to be in this area in future.

Labour’s revival of a proper industrial strategy is a welcome signal. This will clearly form a key part of the party’s drive for growth, and research-intensive universities are ready and willing to be partners in these endeavours.

Other manifesto pledges include reforms to planning––including removing barriers to capital developments such as high-tech labs and data centres––and a new Regulatory Innovation Office, which should speed up the journey of bringing new products and ideas to market, supporting our innovation economy.

Block grants

But for all their promise, any new initiatives must be accompanied by a renewed commitment towards block grant funding for research and innovation—most importantly QR and HEIF funding and their equivalents in the devolved nations.

This is funding that really works because it can be targeted locally by the universities best placed to make a difference. It is funding that underpins the research and innovation capabilities of our sector and is responsible for many of the success stories that governments are keen to celebrate. For example, strategic investment at Newcastle University in 70 academic track fellows, to ensure a pipeline of brilliant new researchers at the forefront of a range of disciplines, would not be happening without a reliable QR funding stream.

There are countless other examples across the country—from the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, specialising in vaccine development, to the University of Nottingham’s partnership with GSK that resulted in the UK’s first carbon-neutral lab.

Funding through HEIF, meanwhile, is helping to take brilliant ideas from our research into new spinout companies that are likely to be engines for future economic growth. Universities have utilised their HEIF funds to help grow innovation ecosystems, such as Midlands Mindforge, a new investment company co-founded by the universities of Birmingham, Nottingham and Warwick that supports entrepreneurs and helps turn university research and innovation into successful businesses.

This funding is an essential part of the R&D funding landscape that gives universities the flexibility to both plan for the long term and remain responsive to emerging opportunities and challenges. It is one of the reasons we can remain so internationally competitive when it comes to trailblazing research. A creative and ambitious approach to R&D and innovation will be welcomed by the sector, but not if it comes at the cost of squeezing this long-term funding pipeline that supports so much vital activity.

Seeking reassurance

We should, however, feel encouraged by signs that the Labour government understands the need for long-term stability. The promise of 10-year budgets for key R&D institutions is a nod towards the need for predictable and sustainable planning, although we will need to await more details to see how this will function in practice, how these institutions will be selected, and whether it comes with any risk to basic research.

Of course, it would be naïve to overlook that the new government is inheriting a hugely challenging fiscal landscape and a myriad of competing priorities. But rather than being just another entry on the to-do list, providing reassurance and a compelling plan for the university sector would be a valuable tool for solving some of the country’s most pressing problems.

Universities have an opportunity to showcase how R&D capabilities make us a hugely beneficial partner, at both regional and national level, helping to address some of our biggest societal challenges––from healthcare to net zero and defence.

And the country won’t be able to deliver on these key priorities without a highly skilled workforce. Russell Group universities teach four out of five new UK doctors and dentists, more than one in every three engineers, and two in three mathematicians. Maintaining the right level of choice and quality in the higher education system will need a robust and sustainable funding system but will be crucial to supporting the ambitious growth the new government is so keen to drive.

Whatever your political persuasions, a moment of change like this is a useful catalyst, and colleagues across the sector will be seizing this chance to reset the conversation on universities and their relationship to Westminster. It’s reassuring to hear that new ministers want to be cheerleaders for our sector, not adversaries.

As campaigning gives way to the real business of governing, my main message to the new government is that our sector has a huge amount to offer and we hope to be a partner of choice in helping to deliver a bright future for the UK.

Chris Day is Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University and chair of the Russell Group.

This article originally appeared in ResearchProfessional News

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