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, and the following year the Norton/Skidmore Review did the same.

Eastern Arc responded to both of these consultations, and the following position paper is based on those responses.

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Broadly, we believe that there are two fundamental principles that should be borne in mind in providing funding to the regions: devolution of decision-making (or recognition or regional need), and long-term investment. 

Although we will discuss both research and innovation, it is important to recognise that innovation has a clear and discrete set of challenges and opportunities. The Manufacturing Commission’s report, Level Up Industry, made seven recommendations that addressed these. Although focused primarily on manufacturing, we believe they offer a good framework for the government’s actions in encouraging innovation, and ensuring it is used to greatest effect. 

Primarily, there is a need to give businesses the certainty to invest for the long-term. With the twin seismic changes of coronavirus and Brexit, business needs assurance that policy (and associated funding) will not shift under its feet. 

Leading on from this, there should be more devolution and autonomy to the regions to enable local enterprise partnerships to assess and exploit synergies and intra-regional opportunities for collaboration and growth. SMEs should play a key part in this: they make up 99 per cent of businesses in the UK, and their involvement is therefore crucial. 

Within fundamental research, devolution would also be welcome. Our experience in managing the ‘block grant’ element of the Global Challenges Research Fund showed the benefit of doing so and demonstrated that universities could and should be trusted to make investments, particularly for pilot projects or small-scale interventions. It enables a flexibility and speed that encourages agile thinking and facilitates the most interesting and ground-breaking research.

Similarly, our joint CCF project, EIRA, was responsible for managing its own funding programme, and the results have been exceptional. Such devolution and flexibility is essential to enable successful long-term partnerships between universities and industry on innovation.

Devolution would also enable us to identify and map the areas where we can make a difference to the national effort, based on a close knowledge of our strengths. At a time when much of the national narrative is about science and technology, there should also be a recognition of the part that can be played by the arts, humanities and social sciences. We have incorporated these within our four themes, but it is also reflected in projects such as the Thames Production Corridor, and the response to Covid, including the uptake of the vaccine, has shown that the behavioural sciences play a crucial role in ensuring our safety and resilience in the face of the infection.

Taking account of regional need

Allied to the issue of devolution, we believe it is essential that, in the words of the Norton-Skidmore Review, ‘national agencies, including UKRI…better take the needs of local communities and economies into account in policy and funding decisions.’

The East and Southeast of England are in a slightly unusual position. Although in very broad terms they are seen as relatively affluent, their coastline is home to some of the most deprived communities in the country, including Great Yarmouth, Tendring, Castle Point, and Thanet (Corfe 2017); indeed, Jaywick in Tendring was identified as the most deprived area in the UK. 11 of the 100 ‘priority places’ identified by the government in its Community Renewal Fund are in our region; nine of them are coastal communities. The House of Lords has recognised the challenges that have led to this situation and stated that it ‘warrants dedicated attention and support.’

At the same time, the Eastern Arc area has been portrayed as synonymous with the ‘golden triangle’ of universities; the R&D Roadmap described the triangle as being ‘London, the South East and the East of England’, not the six institutions that traditionally make up the triangle.

In doing so, there is a very real danger that the specific needs of the region are overlooked in the wider conversation around the place agenda, and that local communities and economies lose out as a result. 

There is a need, then, for national agencies to take account of regional need at a granular level and are careful in differentiating significant variations within regions. 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 subregions. 

Within regions of prosperity, there are areas that need additional investment. Conversely, within regions of relative under-investment there are areas (or institutions) that do not need any further funding and are as prosperous as the most affluent elsewhere.

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.’

We would recommend that the Government should work with Research England and Innovate UK, together with local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), to undertake a comprehensive study on a sub-regional basis to identify areas that are underperforming in terms of investment in research and development, but are punching above their weight in terms of excellence.

In parallel with this, it should work with the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) to further understand how universities connect with their cities and their regions, and how they can be the catalyst for regional development and growth.