Regional Policy, ‘Levelling Up’ and R&D: a north of England perspective

As published on HEPI on 3 June 2021.

This blog was contributed by Dr Annette Bramley, Director, N8 Research Partnership and Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director, Yorkshire Universities. This blog is in response to the recent HEPI report on Regional Policy and R&D. You can find Annette and Peter on Twitter @AnnetteB_N8 and @obrienpeter72.

HEPI recently ran responses by Andy Westwood, Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester and Diana Beech, CEO of London Higher.  

The N8 Research Partnership and Yorkshire Universities (YU) together represent 17 higher education institutions in the north of England. Our members make major contributions towards the UK’s research and innovation base. They are also critical institutions in supporting local and regional development, and act as key anchor institutions underpinning place-making in many cities, towns and communities across the north.

The publication of a report by HEPI on Regional Policy and R&D, was the latest instalment in a flurry of recent contributions to the question surrounding the role of place and geography more widely in the distribution and implementation of research and innovation funding and activity – see, for example, Nesta’s report on the ‘Missing £4 billion’,and its recommendation to introduce ‘innovation deals’. Such commentary has received fresh impetus, with confirmation that the government will publish, in the summer, a new Innovation Strategy alongside a R&D Place Strategy.

There is much to support in the HEPI report, written by Sarah Chaytor, Grace Gottlieb and Graeme Reid, from UCL, including the emphasis on the value of regional university networks. Furthermore, the case set out by the authors for R&D to act as an instrument of regional policy is important in the context of growing clamour for the government to provide a clearer definition to its levelling up programme. We are more comfortable referring to the issue as research and innovation (R&I), which extends beyond the narrow parameters of R&D, with its origins and close associations to technology-led solutions. R&I is a key feature of regional policy, but it is not a silver bullet, and is one of a suite of tools, to be used over the long-term, to help address, what in the UK, are some of the largest inequalities between regions amongst OECD member states.

We would, however, challenge the opinion, as set out in the HEPI report, that R&I funding in the UK is not an outlier, by international comparison, in terms of the spatial concentration of funding. Taking the unit of analysis as NUTS 1 regions, the authors of the HEPI report suggest that the South East of England receives 19% of total funding, followed by London and the East of England. Treating these administrative regions separately is somewhat blurring an interpretation that, in essence, the three regions constitute, to a large degree, the London ‘Global City Region’. And that the economic geography and impact of London stretches far beyond the boundaries of the Greater London Authority. Together, the three administrative regions present a significant concentration of R&I funding in the UK.

Furthermore, as the analysis of university R&D spend in US and UK cities reveals, the most highly-ranked cities outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ like Manchester and Edinburgh, have a combined R&D spend less than that of Oxford alone. If university R&D spend was not spatially concentrated – and the north of England had as much university R&D expenditure per provider as London – its combined university R&D expenditure might be comparable to Chicago or St. Louis. Clearly this is not the case.

Recognising the uneven geography of R&I funding matters. We also believe that other processes are required to help make effective use of more R&I investment in more places across the country. This is essential when the case for increasing public R&I funding needs to be made alongside other public spending commitments. While it is understandable that research investment in a region is seen by the authors as a poor proxy for regional impacts, we would argue that it is a leading metric that reflects the uneven spatial distribution of R&I in the UK. Certainly – as Andy Westwood points out in a response to the authors – there are potential opportunities to do things differently. This will require a whole range of metrics which might usefully capture both input and output measures, as well as an assessment of social capital and quality of life if we are truly to understand the impact of our actions on levelling-up.

That said, we do not wish to just offer critique. Eighteen months ago we published a joint response to a series of questions posed by David Sweeney, Executive Chair of Research England, on the nature and future trajectory of place-based R&D. Despite the unprecedented period since then, we believe our previous intervention remains valid and offers some useful regional insights to help inform the forthcoming Innovation and R&D Place Strategies. In summary, our combined view is that:

  • Research capacity and funding is not sufficiently spatially-distributed in the UK. This reinforces imbalances and inequalities in the UK economy and is an opportunity cost for a government that is seeking to ‘level up’, improve UK productivity and reach stated R&D investment targets.
  • In order to address these challenges, there should be a greater emphasis on place and developing regional R&I ecosystems, which engage partners in the public and private sectors, as well as local citizens and communities.
  • Regional university networks have a key role to play in ensuring the benefits of public and private investment into research and innovation are felt by citizens right across their regions, particularly in more ‘left behind’ places.
  • Definitions of excellence should be reviewed, reflecting the value of collaborative research, which is locally embedded and impactful. Conventional peer review methods, which are accustomed to traditional measures of excellence, should be reviewed for funding schemes for which other factors are also strategically important.
  • National programmes should not be one-size fits all, but they should be informed by regional knowledge. Devolution to mayors and combined authorities, particularly in the north of England, along with regional recovery and growth plans, means that the imperative to align R&I projects and programmes to these is essential to maximise the return on government investment.
  • To make transformational change, R&I funding awards with a place dimension should be significant in value and ambition, flexible and long-term.
  • Building capacity and local knowledge should be supported by developing new place-based collaborative research models, disseminating knowledge and informing policy.
  • To enable the governments’ vision of lifelong learning, as set out in the Further Education White Paper and Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, new mechanisms of funding innovative collaborations between further education and higher education in the regions are needed to produce the highly skilled workforces needed by places now, and for the future green economy.

We thank Sarah Chaytor, Grace Gottlieb and Graeme Reid for stimulating debate across the higher education policy community about these important questions, for which there are no easy answers. It is only through open dialogue and discussion that we will reach a consensus that all regions can agree upon and – and identify practical policy solutions.

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