Viewpoint: Unleashing the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system

Strokes of blue, green, yellow, orange, pink and purple creating

Ottoline Leyser outlines how UKRI can fuel the UK’s world-class discovery engine and deeply connect it to innovation in businesses and public services, creating high quality jobs and prosperity across the UK.

The reasons typically given for creating UKRI often strike me as under-ambitious. People flag better support for interdisciplinarity, redistribution of funding between the disciplinary research councils and a strong voice for research and innovation into government. These objectives, whilst important, are rooted in siloed, zero sum game thinking, and significantly under-estimate both the challenges we face, and UKRI’s potential to address them. The future success of the UK’s economy requires a fully joined up approach to research and innovation, and UKRI is a critical national asset in ensuring its delivery.

I took up the role of CEO in June 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, when UKRI was barely two years old. Our ability to address the diverse and dynamic research and innovation needs thrown up by the pandemic vividly demonstrated the power of an integrated funding agency.

Our response was built on the dedication of our staff, their broad and deep expertise across disciplines and sectors, and the ability to reprioritise resources and re-orient incentives. The impact was easy to see because it was focused on a limited set of short-term, urgent priorities. And these same capabilities are even more powerful when deployed in support of the long-term prosperity of the UK.

Fostering an outstanding system

UKRI balances multiple priorities, year on year, with every pound we invest delivering on many outcomes across timeframes from the immediate to the very long term. Our job is to foster an outstanding research and innovation system for the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and benefit, now and in the future.

As set out in our strategy – Transforming Tomorrow Together – UKRI is building an investment portfolio balanced within and between skills, places, infrastructure, ideas, innovation and impacts. And we are weaving these strands together to create a research and innovation system with deeply connected diversity, the resilience to withstand shocks, and sustained engagement with all stakeholders.

This approach was key to winning a rising budget in the last spending review, and crucially, more flexibility within that budget. As a result, we are leveraging the disciplinary and sector expertise of our nine councils working within, between and across them.

Unleashing the power of research and innovation

About a third of our core budget is invested through the seven disciplinary research councils, ensuring that all disciplines thrive. About a third is focused on sector needs, providing support to innovative businesses through Innovate UK, and block grants into universities through Research England working in collaboration with their counterparts in the devolved nations. The remaining third is collectively managed across all nine UKRI councils, leveraging council-led investments to create the necessary diversity and connectivity in the portfolio.

For example, about a third of our budget is invested through a diverse portfolio of project grants, catalysing the creation and development of new ideas, technologies, resources, products and services. The balance within this portfolio can be dynamically tuned, for example to promote key technologies such as AI, quantum and engineering biology; and to address challenges such as environmental sustainability and lifelong health. Every project develops the skills of those employed on the grant. By enabling and incentivising diverse career paths and collaborations for these people, our grants support adoption and diffusion of new skills, ideas and knowhow across the economy.

Through the ability to act in this concerted way, the creation of UKRI provides an extraordinary opportunity to unleash the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system for the benefit of all.

A fully joined up, systems-level approach

There is now widespread political consensus that this kind of long-term, fully joined up, systems-level approach is essential. This is powerfully captured by the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) a year ago, which is charged with co-ordinating R&I across government through the implementation of the Science and Technology Framework.

The combination of DSIT and UKRI can be transformative for the UK. A key priority for me is to capture this opportunity, working to fuel the UK’s world-class discovery engine and deeply connect it to innovation in businesses and public services, creating high quality jobs and prosperity across the UK.

This coming year marks a particularly crucial time in the evolution of UKRI. We are in the midst of a huge change programme aimed at providing simpler, better, more integrated IT platforms; harmonised processes; easier and more agile collaboration across the organisation; and better data resources and analytical tools. Among many benefits, this will facilitate a fully closed loop of piloting new investment approaches, monitoring and evaluating their success and rolling out or revising them accordingly. As part of our wider new metascience collaboration with DSIT, this will ensure that everything we do is evidence-based and data-driven.

A shared endeavour to deliver national prosperity

The opportunity created by UKRI is to break down the many barriers in our research and innovation system, between disciplines and sectors, and between research and innovation and wider society. My ambition is that UKRI transcends zero sum game thinking and creates a shared endeavour to deliver national prosperity through connected, resilient, engaged, diversity in research and innovation; and that UKRI, as a key DSIT delivery partner for the Science and Technology Framework, helps to embed research and innovation so deeply across government that it informs every decision made and every action taken.

This is a long-term project critical for the future of the UK. It extends well beyond the objectives often cited for UKRI, and beyond my five-year term of office as CEO. By the end of my tenure, I aim to have amplified the momentum behind this ambition among our many stakeholders and to have shaped an organisation optimised for its delivery.

Top image:  Credit: Benjamin Toth, DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images

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