Position Paper: Eastern Arc and the ‘Place’ Agenda

The government’s R&D Roadmap highlighted the need to ‘level up’ its investment across the regions of the UK. It stated:

We have already committed to developing a comprehensive and ambitious UK R&D Place Strategy together with the devolved administrations over the coming months. Our goal in developing the Place Strategy will be to drive place-based outcomes from our R&D system – accelerating our economic recovery, levelling up across the UK.

In June 2020 the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) canvassed the views of stakeholders on this emerging ‘place’ agenda.

Each of the Eastern Arc universities responded separately to this, but the consortium also responded collectively. The following position paper is based on that response.

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Eastern Arc welcomes the government’s intention to ‘examine how R&D funding as a whole can best be distributed across the country to help level up every region and nation of the country,’ and we agree with the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) that ‘public investment is likely to be even more crucial’ after the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, such an examination needs to be granular, and careful in differentiating significant variations within regions. There’s a danger that the east and south-east are ignored when considering additional investment; the national narrative is such that they do not need any further funding. They are rich enough as it is.

The picture is, of course, more complex than this. This was recognised by Nesta in its report, The Missing £4 Billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK, which broke UK R&D funding down into sub-regions. Within regions of prosperity, there are areas that need additional investment. Conversely, within regions of relative under-investment there are areas (or institutions) that don’t need any further funding, and are as prosperous as the most affluent elsewhere.

Although R&D expenditure is, in global figures, highest in London, the south-east and east of England, this is heavily distorted by the location of the six ‘Golden Triangle’ universities within these regions, which are all within the top ten richest universities in the UK.

The Eastern Arc universities share the same geographic area as the Golden Triangle, and as a result may be overlooked when additional investment is discussed. They are not alone in this. Many of the former 1994 Group universities are in a similar position.

As with the Research Excellence Framework, the government’s place agenda should ensure ‘that excellent research continues to be well supported wherever it is found,’ and not just in the larger institutions. Eastern Arc endorses CaSE’s recommendations that ‘investment should be focussed on R&D excellence that already exists – even if it is small and nascent’, and that ‘places should clarify their distinctive strengths and sectors.’

Eastern Arc has a strong case to make for the existing excellence and distinctiveness of its work. Its three constituent universities – UEA, Essex and Kent – were established in the early 1960s as alternative, interdisciplinary institutions, focussing on socially aware, radical and disruptive research and education. The subsequent strength of both of these pillars of our work is clear when the results of the REF are mapped against those of the TEF: the three members are in the top 10% of UK universities that have achieved the highest scores in both.

Going forward, we undertook a mapping exercise using quantitative and qualitative data to identify four key strengths that the three universities share. These form the heart of our new five year strategy. They are:

  • Health systems, social care and wellbeing
  • Human rights, equality and conflict
  • Sustainability, natural resources and food
  • Culture, connection and creativity.

Within our region, we are already working with commercial organisations to build connectivity, exploiting the potential of the east and south-east, its asset base, and facilitating improved harnessing of the combined capacity to support business growth through innovation.

Utilising funding from Research England, we have provided a focus on improving regional business productivity and have proactively supported the development of strong relationships between researchers and companies working in the digital creative industries (the creative sector is a priority for SELEP, in Norwich and for many of the local authorities in the region), biotechnology (once again, key to a region with a strong agricultural profile), and artificial intelligence. This programme, ‘Enabling Innovation: Research to Application’ (EIRA), has demonstrated what is achievable through regional funding across the R&D spectrum.

However, there is much still to do, and much potential as to what can be achieved. In particular, there is a clear need for funding solutions that span LEP and local authority boundaries. This is particularly so in the SELEP area, where we have a complex picture that we need to help businesses navigate.

Funding from UKRI and other agencies is a key part of this, and investment in smaller, research-intensive universities that are engaged regionally will inevitably have a more significant impact than investing the same amount in those that are already at capacity.