Innovation contributions from COVID-19 crisis to economic success

Laptop Computer on a Modern Wooden Business Desk with a Notepad and Pen in Unfocused Background.

Reflecting on the importance of having up-to-date evidence on how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting universities and their knowledge exchange activities.

In January 2021 the University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) Policy Evidence Unit based at Cambridge published an important report (PDF, 1.5MB) on the impacts of COVID-19 on how universities work with businesses and contribute to the innovation system. The UCI worked on the report with the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB).

UCI and NCUB are now working to update and extend the evidence base through a survey and programme of interviews to investigate:

  • the ongoing effects of the pandemic period on universities
  • how universities have been adapting their approaches to drive innovation to pursue new opportunities and overcome major challenges
  • the frictions hampering their ability to adapt.

The new evidence will greatly help us with our strategy development and planning at this critical time for policy development in the UK.

We are immensely grateful for any contributions universities can make to this important survey by 24 September 2021.

How universities contribute to innovation

The UCI and NCUB work is vitally important to us, giving up to date evidence on how COVID-19 is affecting:

  • university knowledge exchange operations
  • the state of working with their partners.

The January report also flagged that this is a dynamic situation, and we know that subsequent events to the report, not least additional lockdowns, will have changed trajectories. So updated evidence now is critical.

We are now at a critical juncture when we hope that our economy, and the world more generally, can turn attention from fighting the virus to economic recovery, growth and long-term success.

We are also at a critical juncture in policy terms. The government stressed the problem-solving power of research and development (R&D), in its R&D roadmap. It served notice that R&D would need to help deliver economic goals in build back better. It has set out the conditions to deliver those goals in the Innovation Strategy.

This autumn we turn our attention to how we allocate current funding, the trajectory of longer term funding in the spending review and fleshing out our delivery plans. We know that more up to date evidence would significantly strengthen our strategy development and planning.

January 2021 results

What have we done with the January 2021 results and what will we do with the results of the latest survey?

Address frictional costs

First, we need to understand where universities have had to invest more in their knowledge exchange (KE) as challenges have emerged. Hence consider, how we can identify pressures and address frictional costs in funding scenarios.

Results so far have suggested that universities have needed to pivot rapidly to support industry sectors that have been impacted very differently by COVID-19, either with:

  • new demand: pharmaceutical or health sectors
  • new challenges: aerospace and creative industries.

Universities also need to catch up on their internal KE training and development and may be able to capitalise further on new approaches adopted in lockdown. For example, enhanced remote and IT based working.

Strong results from the Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HE-BCI) survey on spinouts and start-ups also suggest that universities are being proactive to sustain these early enterprise green shoots.

Understand emerging opportunities

Second, we need to understand the opportunities that are starting to emerge and feed those into funding scenarios. This could include opportunities of sectors that are starting to recover and need help. It could be opportunities from new government priorities, for example net zero. It could be additional spinouts or start-ups blooming out of lockdown efforts.

Above all we are looking for evidence on regional and local trends, such as to inform new levelling up policies. UCI and NCUB’s previous report showed some consistency of impacts across the country, reflecting uniformity in the problem: lockdown.

However, we would expect different areas to recover differently, given their differences in business sectoral mixes and other economic characteristics.

A greater number of universities submitting evidence to the UCI and NCUB survey this time round could provide a large enough sample to produce a more nuanced picture of opportunities and challenges of different regions.

Inform delivery

Finally, we need evidence to inform delivery and make realistic calculations of what impacts we, reliant on universities working with their partners, can achieve against government priority areas.

Judging what will work in KE is particularly difficult. It has to work for universities, but also for business partners and other local and national actors, such as investors. It needs to work based on the ecosystem as it is now, but also on the future ecosystem that we may create.

We welcome then that UCI and NCUB share their evidence across many national policy and funding bodies who work on different elements to the ecosystem, but in a joined up way.

We recognise that universities are under pressure moving from crisis to recovery in all their operations, not just in KE, and hence this is not an easy ask. We express our thanks in anticipation of any university contributions.

We commit to working with UCI and NCUB to ensure that your contributions are acknowledged, that we feed back to you and engage you in policy discussion going forward.

Top image:  Credit: Demianastur / Getty Images

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