Levelling up: the opportunities for research and innovation

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How UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will use research and innovation to catalyse levelling up for the benefit of the whole UK.

The Levelling Up white paper published in February sets out aims for transforming the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity across the country, with four pillars:

  • economic: boost productivity, pay, jobs and living standards
  • public services: spread opportunities and improve public services
  • communities: restore a sense of community, local pride and belonging
  • devolution: empower local leaders and communities.

Research and innovation contribute to all of these. As stewards of the public funding that underpins so much of the UK’s research and innovation, UKRI, and before UKRI was created, the research councils and Innovate UK, have long been contributing to these aims.

We are very pleased, then, that the white paper coalesces this thinking into a new objective for us: “to deliver economic, social, and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all of our citizens, including by developing research and innovation strengths across the UK in support of levelling up”.

That objective, and the government-wide mission on investment that the paper also promises, are welcome developments for UKRI, for research and innovation, and for the country as a whole. They give us new impetus to build on what is already working.

We have well-established programmes that have explicit objectives about supporting benefits for places, such as:

More recently the launch of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Place Programme and the Economic and Social Research Council Local Acceleration Fund have added to this portfolio focused on achieving local impact.

But all our core activities, and the network of UKRI-supported infrastructure, have the potential to play an important role in supporting places. Indeed in many cases they already do, by:

  • enabling local businesses and universities to prosper and create jobs. For example, Sci-Tech Daresbury in the Liverpool City Region, of which the Science and Technology Facilities Council is a partner, supported companies on its campus to create 163 local jobs and generate £135 million of sales in 2020 alone
  • supporting services and cultural assets that benefit communities
  • providing data and knowledge that help policymakers make good decisions
  • helping research and development-active businesses to work together in clusters. For example, CSconnected in south Wales, which has support from multiple parts of UKRI, accounts for an estimated 1,407 local jobs and contributed £121.3 million to south Wales’ economy during 2020.

Within the public-private-academic partnerships that will pilot the three Innovation Accelerators announced in the Levelling Up white paper, we will bring what we have learned about supporting strengths and clusters to deliver for:

  • Greater Manchester
  • the Midlands
  • Glasgow City region.

Meanwhile, Innovate UK is developing a new programme of launchpad investments to build capacity in clusters of innovative businesses.

But of course the overall task for UKRI is UK-wide and working with places not selected for innovation accelerators or launchpads remains intensely important to all of us.

We want to build more place thinking and sensitivity into more of our funding approaches. To that end, we are actively helping colleagues across UKRI to design and deliver programmes that can support impact in more parts of the UK.

The detail of what this looks like in practice varies, reflecting the enormous diversity of work that UKRI does, but overall by building a stronger set of place considerations into our activity and increasing UK-wide participation in our programmes, we can reach further into all areas and nations of the UK.

We will support diversity of:

  • ideas
  • people
  • activities
  • skills
  • institutions
  • infrastructures.

This will broaden incentives to avoid homogenisation. The presence of centres and institutes in different disciplines, domains, locations around the country provides potential for a diversity of approach that may be helpful when responding to the different needs of different regions.

We will build connectivity and break down silos across the system. And, crucially, we will involve a broader range of people and organisations in the design and delivery of research and innovation. All parts of UKRI are increasing their connections across the UK.

I recognise that there are different perspectives on this. Some feel that UKRI isn’t going far enough, others feel we are already doing a lot. For me, the important thing is that we grab the opportunity this mission holds out to us, move beyond maps and take action to grow strengths.

We look forward to engaging with a wide range of research and innovation stakeholders, old friends and new ones, to build a truly national research and innovation system for the benefit of everyone in the country.

Find out more about how we invest across the UK.

Top image:  Credit: jeffbergen, E+ via Getty Images

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