Opinion: Levelling up research funding requires a fine balance

Policy should focus more on research’s benefits to a region than on where it is conducted, say Sarah Chaytor, Grace Gottlieb and Graeme Reid (all UCL Office of the Vice Provost: Research, Innovation & Global Engagement).

Levelling up may be the big political idea of the day, but it is by no means the first attempt by government to address regional inequalities in the UK.

As the 2070 Commission into regional equality has observed, while initiatives have come and gone, the inequalities remain stubbornly in place. The question is whether this time will be any different - and what role R&D can and should play in an effective strategy.

The government’s Research and Development Roadmap, published last July, has emphasised the role of research in levelling up, with a subsequent R&D place strategy promised later this year. We suggest there remain several unanswered questions that will be critical to the success of that strategy and future regional R&D initiatives. What is the purpose of a "place" strategy for R&D and how will we know if it has been successful? What is the optimal distribution of research funding, according to what metric, and at what level of granularity? What are the different local constraints in translating research and how can these be tackled? And how can local strengths, opportunities and capacity be put to best use?

In a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, we examine some of the evidence that underlies assumptions about the regional spread of research funding. We have found no uniquely authoritative way of describing the distribution. Instead, we find a messy, complex picture that takes on different patterns according to which measure is used. In particular, we find that variation in R&D spending within regions is often greater than that between them. Simply increasing the overall spend in particular regions, therefore, may even amplify existing disparities within them.

One option might be to increase support for collaboration between universities in different regions. Institutions with distinct expertise, networks, characteristics and missions could collaborate to address local needs - as in the case of UCL’s participation in the ActEarly collaboration, which is enabling the application of expertise from the University of Bradford to improve child health in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Such collaboration could also connect high-performing research teams with institutions in less research-intensive regions - turning islands of excellence into large archipelagos. This would enable the pooling of both research and its translation to local communities within and across regions. For example, Research England’s Capabilities in Academic Policy Engagement (Cape) partnership supports engagement between academics and policy professionals at different levels of government in localities across the UK, which would be difficult for any one university to coordinate alone.

Aligning research strengths with local needs may require devolution of some research funding to regions that demonstrate commitment to R&D - such as through local R&D strategies that are responsive to the region’s specific characteristics and are backed by local investment. Strengthening regional leadership for research may help to ensure that levelling up through research is done with regions and by regions, not done to regions. A crucial aim would be to deliver benefits throughout regions rather than simply enhancing those areas that are already research intensive.

While funding is important, knowing that R&D spending has occurred does not tell us what the impact has been within regions - and nor does research spending in and of itself necessarily address persistent inequalities. Rather, it is the outputs from research that count. A place agenda for research should focus on how to increase research’s economic and social benefits for a particular region - whether the research is conducted within that region or beyond it.

In a letter setting out its thoughts on the role of science and technology in levelling up, the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology has observed that research policy must sustain the UK’s position as a global science power. This means ensuring strong coherence and complementarity between national and regional R&D strategies. Ideally, research policy should leverage research strengths across the UK to address both regional needs and national priorities.

Of course, R&D funding is not a panacea for levelling up. Nor does it exist in isolation from other policy areas. A coordinated approach that recognises the interface with education, skills, infrastructure and connectivity, among other factors, is needed. But there is great potential for R&D policy to play a significant role within that larger policy toolbox - especially if it takes into account the nuanced regional picture.

We hope that the R&D place strategy will help to deliver a more robust approach to tackling regional inequalities that can deliver for communities across the UK.

This article was originally published in Times Higher Education on 13 May 2021.


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