UK government launches innovation strategy

22 Jul 2021 | News

Innovation reform fills Brexit-shaped gaps and echoes EU push for missions and smart specialisation

Kwasi Kwarteng, UK business secretary. Picture by Andrew Parsons

The UK government has launched a new innovation strategy to strengthen science and research capabilities after its departure from the EU.

The government says the strategy would cement the UK’s position as a world-leader in science, research and innovation.

According to the plan, the UK is to increase annual public investment in R&D to £22 billion and to raise the total public and private R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

Underpinning the plan, the government wants to preserve the spirit and speed with which large scale national research projects were set up during the COVID-19 pandemic, with prime minister Boris Johnson saying he wants this bureaucracy-lite approach to be the “new norm”.

The exemplar is seen as the UK vaccine taskforce, which brought together the public and private sectors to speed up the discovery, clinical development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines. Another is the UK genomics consortium, which has led the world in studying the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and the emergence of variants.

The UK also has been very successful in setting up national studies to collect real world data, with researchers in Scotland for example, being first to report on the effectiveness of vaccines post rollout, in a project that encompass the entire population. 

It also used the scale of its National Health Service to recruit 41,037 COVID-19 patients in 185 hospitals to randomized studies of a variety of possible treatments for the infection. It was this scale that made it possible to demonstrate the steroid dexamethasone reduces mortality in seriously ill patients by one third, for example.

Backing up the innovation strategy, the UK government also launched recently a strategy for life sciences and a document on clinical research strategy, both aimed at turning lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic into a long-term approach, more flexible approach.

Adrian Smith president, Royal Society, said the Innovation Strategy is welcome. “The government is committed to increasing investment in science to £22 billion a year by 2024/5 and we look forward to seeing more detail in the spending review. But that is only part of the story in reaching 2.4% of GDP, with private sector and overseas investment also crucial,” he said.

The success of treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 has demonstrated the value of decades of investment in UK science. “Now we must build on that. Meaningful investment in both research and innovation will also help to transform local economies and support growth right across the UK,” said Smith.

Despite its departure from the EU, the UK did not lose access to Horizon Europe. Now the country wants to mirror similar plans made in Brussels and make targeted R&D investments that would enable the UK to compete internationally.

The new innovation strategy also mirrors a plan by the European Commission to establish research missions to speed up scientific discoveries and spur innovations in targeted policy areas. The UK plan calls these “innovation missions” which would be coordinated by a new National and Technology Council. The strategy outlines seven strategic technologies, including clean technologies, robotics, genomics and AI.

“If we get this right, we can build the foundations for the new industries of tomorrow,” said UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Research and innovation stakeholders welcomed the strategy and the investment boost.

“With pressures on public finances, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, and growing global competition, supporting businesses to manage the risks associated with R&D and encourage innovation is a way of securing our future growth and reaping the returns from our investment in research,” said Jim McDonald, the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“The commitment to increasing investment to £22bn for R&D provides and important signal to business ahead of the spending review that this Government will work with business to deliver on the ambition set out in this strategy,” said Felicity Burch, director of innovation at the business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry.

Strength in places

The strategy also features a plan to boosting regional innovation, which has shades of the smart specialisation policy introduced by the EU in 2014, to help regions coordinate and focus R&D investments in areas of strength.

The Strength in Places Fund will finance five projects with £127 million. In the north of England, it will provide £22.6 million for robotics and advanced machinery manufacturers. In the Midlands, £18.3 million will be awarded to the ceramics industry to improve manufacturing processes, making them more energy-efficient. A further £21.3 million will go to Scotland and Cumbria to combine digital communications and advanced manufacturing in the dairy industry.

In Wales, £22.2 million will go towards helping UK broadcasters, small companies and freelancers to research and develop new products and services. In Northern Ireland, £42.4 million will help the Smart Nano project to speed up the development of new nano-scale optical components for digital devices.

Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of 24 leading UK universities said the Strength in Places plan would boost university-industry collaboration. "We hope the government will also take the opportunity to help unlock the potential of the UK’s regions by supporting existing and new regional innovation clusters with research-intensive universities at their heart,” Bradshaw said.

Future Fund

The new innovation strategy comes after a series of other announcements related to research and innovation policy.

Earlier this week, the UK government launched the Future Fund: breakthrough scheme, committing £375 million of funding to fast-growing companies looking to raise at least £30 million of investment.

The government wants to use the fund to leverage private investments in R&D, providing breakthrough technology companies with more growth capital over longer time periods.

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