10 Dec 2020   |   News

‘Stop endless reviewing’: UK research chief appeals for more room to deliver

Head of UK Research and Innovation speaks out against repeatedly pulling up the green shoots of the country’s Catapult centres to inspect their roots

Ottoline Leyser

Ottoline Leyser, head of the UK’s public research agency.

Ottoline Leyser, head of the UK’s public research agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) called on the government for fewer audits, amid suggestions that the country’s nine Catapult innovation centres are not achieving the impact of their German counterparts.

Leyser told a House of Lords committee her message to ministers is, “Stop the endless reviewing; try and let the system that we’ve built deliver in a constructive way.”  

The centres have been doing well since the first one was set up in 2011, but said Leyser, further growth is being impeded by government red tape.

Chiming with Leyser’s view, Ian Campbell, former head of the innovation agency Innovate UK which oversees the Catapults, told the committee, “We keep on looking over our shoulders and wondering why the Catapults are not like the Fraunhofers,” a reference to Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, which provide expertise and funding for near market research, and which were the main inspiration for the Catapults.

Established to bridge the gulf between having an idea and launching a successful business product, the Catapults give businesses and researchers access to multimillion-pound equipment and laboratories to develop prototypes.

For example, the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult has set up a laboratory in Stevenage, where bioprocesses can be developed and tested for manufacturing early stage products that are in the process of being spun out of academic groups.

Catapults were set up on the recommendation of 2010 report by technologist and venture capital investor Hermann Hauser. They are focussed on sectors ranging from high-value manufacturing and offshore renewable energy, to semiconductors and drug discovery.

Campbell appealed for “stable funding” for the Catapult network, which could soon be competing for money and influence with the UK’s new innovation funder, a British version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, christened British ARPA (BARPA).

Details of BARPA, which is promised £800 million over five years to stimulate new, emerging and high risk science and technology, were first announced a year ago. Several big science figures have warned that the funder risks replicating what UKRI is already doing.

As it finally severs ties with the EU, the UK government is pledging the biggest boost to research and development since the war, to drive overall R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.

Campbell said Catapults should remain at the heart of the government’s plans. “Let’s give them long term funding. Let’s commit to supporting them. Let’s get away from reviewing. We need to give long-term stability in the system,” said Campbell, who stepped down from Innovate UK last month, and is now chief business officer at LifeArc, a life sciences venture capital foundation.

Campbell previously called for BARPA to be integrated into Innovate UK, and to sit with it under the umbrella of UKRI, rather than being an independent entity.

In July, around the time he announced he was leaving Innovate UK, Campbell warned in The Telegraph newspaper that the innovation body risks being side lined, saying it was “given steadily less prominence, less autonomy and less capacity to act genuinely innovatively”. Out of the box thinking “has been dragged back into the box,” he said.

The government appears to want to stick with the Catapults, in November announcing that Innovate UK’s grant programmes and the Catapult network would receive £490 million in 2021.

But Campbell said there was a long-term funding concern, with more competition within the network for money and “not enough of the [funding] pot to go around.”  The “balance of public and private support is too low to stimulate growth at scale,” he said.

Each centre runs on "core" funding of £10 million per year for five years. Over time, the agencies are supposed to run on one third core funding, one third commercial funding, and one third public and private research funding.

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult has received the largest share of funding but has also stimulated the most private financing, according to Campbell.

He also singled out the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, noting it is a key part of a cluster in Stevenage that is the “second largest in the world” for this type of translational research.

Some 14 per cent of all clinical trials in gene and cell therapy, are being carried out in the UK, Campbell said. US biotech companies “are moving here” to benefit from the cluster’s success.

Review ongoing

Government scrutiny of the Catapults was defended before the committee by Alexandra Jones, director of science, research and innovation at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She said there has been two “big reviews” of the agencies in 2014 and 2017.

The latter review, carried out by the Ernst and Young management consultants, was critical of many of the Catapults, concluding that it was “unlikely that the impact of the network overall has been significant so far.”

"Our view, taking in to account everything we have seen, is that, to date, the Catapult network is unlikely to have provided the benefits and value for money envisaged at the outset,” the report said. However, it noted that the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Satellite Applications Catapult were “proactive” in identifying new sources of funding.

A further review of the agencies, which Jones said was “informal”, started in January; it has since been paused during the pandemic.

Jones said the new audit “is not a review to question whether Catapults should exist, but rather how we make the most of them.”

“They have been successful,” she said. “[But] we need to keep an eye on what’s working.”

Comparisons between the Catapults and the Fraunhofer Institutes were not helpful when examining Catapult success. “[The Catapults] have been going for 10 years; the Fraunhofers are going for decades,” Jones said.

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