Position Paper: Encouraging and Supporting Innovation

Research-based innovation is an important facet of impact and a crucial avenue to the realisation of ‘change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life’. As such the government should undertake a review of the existing culture around the way grants are assessed and structured, and ensure that regional bodies are empowered to oversee the appropriate development of industry within their areas. 

This position paper is based on our response to the government’s proposals in its R&D Roadmap. Our full response can be found here.

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. 

We are supportive of the higher and degree apprenticeships programme, and see it as a necessary and important framework through which local industry can develop the skills they need for their business. 

However, we would also emphasise the need to provide short courses that respond to the needs of business. Our universities have demonstrated their agility in adapting to external needs and drivers by developing online provision in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and we would want to ensure that such agility is fully utilised in skills provision.

More broadly, the government needs to ensure that the appropriate infrastructure, especially digital provision, is fit for purpose and available right across the UK.

Financial support for innovation is a perennial issue, and has been highlighted again recently in the annual UK Innovation Survey. To help to overcome this, we would suggest that the current paradigm for R&D funding needs to shift away from a predominant focus solely on research. 

Historically, decisions on funding are made by academics and for academics. There needs to be more involvement of those outside of academia in making decisions, with a balance that goes beyond the nominal commercial representative on grant-making panels. Moreover, any barrier to involving non-academics in projects should be removed, including the reimbursement of salary costs. 

Finally, we wish to emphasise that the arts, humanities and social sciences play an important part in R&D, and should not be excluded in the future development of the roadmap. The recent response to Covid, for instance, has shown that the behavioural sciences play a crucial role in ensuring our safety and resilience in the face of the infection.