UK Government starts conversation to improve R&D

Article by Amanda Jasi

THE UK Government has released a research and development (R&D) plan which it says marks the start of a conversation that will help improve and address challenges within the R&D sector. The plan has been welcomed by IChemE’s UK Research Committee.

The Government’s long-term objectives for R&D include being a science superpower and investing in science and research that will deliver economic growth and societal benefits across the UK for decades to come and building foundations for future industries. It intends to explore how it can build on the UK’s strengths and draw on lessons learned from the R&D sector’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to help make the “bold” changes needed to ensure that the R&D system is fit for purpose now and in future.

Published on 1 July, the UK Research and Development Roadmap is intended to start a conversation to identify the sector’s strengths and the challenges it is facing; issues that need to be addressed; and how the Government could work with universities, businesses, and the third sector to solidify the UK’s reputation as a science superpower.

The Roadmap considers mechanisms to benefit R&D. For example, it explores how the Government could increase investment in research, unlocking discoveries and enabling research to solve challenging problems facing government, industry, and across society.

To support long-range fundamental research, the Government intends to diversify its discovery research funds to enable researchers to adopt cutting-edge techniques and approaches needed to solve complex and difficult questions. This could include increasing support for investigator-led and team-based funding, supporting projects for longer periods of time, and facilitating quicker, “lighter-touch” ways of funding research.

The Roadmap also discusses how to attract and retain talent. For example, the Government intends to improve its approach to attracting global talent by setting up an Office for Talent to make it easier for top global science, research, and innovation talent to come to the UK and for “exceptionally talented” Brits around the world to return home. It additionally intends to ensure a strong talent offer and intends to review it to make sure the coverage and attractiveness of programmes is among the best in the world.

The Roadmap acknowledges the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in research culture, and notes the need for a multifaceted response. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is set to develop and launch initiatives to increase participation, retention and promotion of a diversity of talent into R&D. UKRI is the national funding agency for science and research. Government will work with the sector to drive transparency and accountability by establishing targets and practices to reduce ineffective practices and ensure that the sector benefits from the creative reach of the entire population.

The Government also discusses its ambition for the UK to become a partner of choice for collaboration, to demonstrate it as a global leader in infrastructure, and use its infrastructure to tackle global challenges. It intends to establish new mechanisms to prioritise infrastructure investment and work alongside developed administrations and a wide range of partners to ensure that this investment aligns with the Roadmap’s priorities. It aims to make the best decisions for supporting infrastructure and increasing funding to maintain and upgrade the UK’s “world-class” infrastructure and assets.

IChemE’s UK Research Committee has welcomed the Roadmap, particularly the “reversal in funding for fundamental research” and initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between invention and application, driving business and economic growth to tackle global challenges. In the Roadmap, the Government said it accepted the need to reverse the decline in funding for long-term, fundamental research on which the R&D system depends.

The Committee also welcomed the Roadmap’s focus on diversity, adding that retaining and developing talent irrespective of background and nationality is crucial to the UK economy. “Only by tackling these issues of equality, diversity and inclusion in the engineering workforce will the UK achieve its aim of leading the world in research and innovation.”

Furthermore, the Research Committee stated that supporting research institutes and universities to ensure that both academic and industrial researchers have better access to laboratory equipment and can employ digital resources aligns perfectly with its mission. The Research Committee is an integral part of IChemE’s technical strategy, Chemical Engineering Matters, which aims to raise the profile of the UK’s chemical engineering community in academia and industry.

The UK’s Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said: “R&D will be critical to a swift economic and social recovery from the impacts of Covid-19, for a greener, healthier and more resilient UK. Our goal is to further strengthen science, research and innovation across the UK, making them central to tackling the major challenges we face, including achieving net zero carbon emissions, building resilience to the impacts of climate change, closing the productivity gap and embracing the transformative potential of new technologies to improve the quality of life.”

Over the coming months the Government intends to develop the proposals in its Roadmap into a comprehensive R&D plan, which it stipulates will only be effective if it is developed with people and organisations across the UK. To this end, it is seeking input to high-level questions through an online survey.

As it develops its plan, the Government intends to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including: scientists and researchers at all career levels; universities, businesses and charities; entrepreneurs, business leaders, and investors; National and Devolved Academies, learned societies, and subject associations.

The Government will convene a series of Ministerial-chaired meetings over the next two months to hear from a range of stakeholders from across the UK. Additionally, it said it will continue to safeguard the sustainability of the sector through Covid-19.

The Roadmap follows the UK Government’s announcement of two “major” support packages aimed at protecting thousands of UK research jobs and “ground-breaking” research projects from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

In March, the UK committed to increasing public investment in R&D by £22bn (US$27.7bn) by 2024/2025, putting it on track to achieving its pledge to increase R&D spending to 2.4% by 2027.

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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