Interview with Prof. Chris Warkup on R&D in the UK

6 October 2020

We speak with Chris Warkup, Visiting Professor, Innogen Institute, The Open University, about the actions that are required to develop the UK Government’s Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap and realise the UK’s ambition for science, research and innovation. Chris gives some answers to the Government’s consultation questions based on his career at the interface of academia, industry, policy makers, funders and investors.

How can the UK best increase knowledge and understanding through research?

We need to stop worrying about our ranking in terms of citations and capture more value for UK society from our excellent science base, rather than being, to phrase it provocatively, a charitable provider of science to the rest of the world.

The Government needs to ensure that there are adequate funds for curiosity driven research, unencumbered by considerations of ‘impact’, but then use the new funding being made available for investment in solution-focussed research. This would help restore the highly productive balance of funding between these types of research that was created in the 1970s following the Rothschild review. A balance that has been continually eroded via cuts to the R&D budgets of government departments.

Government should accept that Universities are not always the best place to carry out solution-focussed research and fund more strategic research within Institutes, Research and Technology Organisations (RTOs), Catapults and similar.

I think tougher choices need to be made about what gets funded, and it would help to find ways to focus funding on a smaller number of centres of excellence - rather than spreading resources, sometimes very thinly, via responsive-mode funding. Perhaps a move to 100% funding of the full economic cost of research; without an increase in the budget for curiosity-driven research, would help to focus resources?

How can the UK maximise the economic, environmental and societal benefits of research?

The mantra and behaviour, especially within Universities, should be to drive knowledge towards application, to "get it used" or to actively transfer the knowledge to someone who can.

We need to build new mechanisms, and strengthen existing ones, that foster and support long-term relationships between Universities and UK businesses (and other users of research outputs) as too often Universities take a transactional approach to new knowledge and IP.

We also need to increase funding for institutional large-scale R,D & I projects (not large scale infrastructure) focussed on societal needs. Especially projects directly linked to early users of research outputs.

How can we ensure that innovation is used to greatest effect, right across the economy and throughout our public services?

By evaluating and incentivising recipients of funds based on short- and long-term impacts, even more strongly than REF does now. Initially, progress towards impacts might be measured by the number, scale and duration of tangible collaborations with industry and public bodies (research, training, innovation and business collaborations).

We should look for ways (within applicable international agreements) to build conditions into grants for research that reward grant recipients for commercialising new IP within the UK - or otherwise incentivise preferential licensing terms for UK businesses.

Maintain or increase Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) funding as an excellent way to a) transfer knowledge to a wide range of businesses; b) build new industry-university partnerships, and c) build innovation capacity within UK businesses.

How should we ensure that R&D plays its fullest role in levelling up all over the UK?

By incentivising Universities, Public Sector Research Establishments, RTOs etc. to build both local and national relationships and seeding new clusters of translational research activities (and facilities where necessary) that build on real academic strengths and attract in business investment. The AMRC at Sheffield is great example.

At the risk of repeating myself, KTP works everywhere and is a very useful tool for building new business-academia linkages, especially locally.

How should the UK strengthen its research infrastructure and institutions?

Because of the oddities of national accounting rules, Her Majesty’s Treasury finds it much easier to release new capital funds than revenue expenditure. This often decouples the building of new research facilities from the proper resourcing of them to get the best return on the capital invested. Government needs to make sure that any infrastructure spend is properly supported by research programme spend. A very high proportion of UKRI spend is allocated to projects and not to coherent managed programmes of research. A failure of the UK system I believe. There are planned developments that might increase future programme funding, but a significant increase might mean a resurgence of the Research Institute structures - that were so very effective at translation and innovation in the post-war years.

Government departmental R&D budgets (post Rothschild review) were solution focussed and strong supporters of Institute research. As departmental R&D budgets shrunk whilst curiosity-driven funding was maintained (in absolute even if not in real terms), we saw the closure of a significant number of Institutes or a drift from their core focus — either a drift to become more like contract research centres or a drift towards more curiosity-driven science and, in a number of cases, absorption into Universities. I would suggest either restoring the proper (post Rothschild) balance of funding for R&D within Government Departments, or ensuring a large tranche of the new funds available to UKRI are invested in areas agreed by Government Departments. Government has used such dual-lock approaches to research funding successfully in the past. The LINK programme being an excellent example.

How can the UK collaborate most effectively and safely with partners and networks around the globe?

The UK should be seeking and preferentially supporting collaborations that have tangible involvement of UK entities capable of exploiting the outcomes within the UK.

Developing a single legal agreement for such grants that ensures proper UK industry access, analogous to the (take it or leave it) EU R&D contracts, could hugely simplify the establishment of international collaborations and ensure the protection of UK investments in the activity.

In the event that the UK ceases to participate in the EU Horizon Europe programme we should deploy equivalent funds to international research collaborations – with a condition of funding being substantive UK businesses/user involvement.