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Research Funding

UK bets on science to deliver regional rejuvenation

The government is fusing its science and economic policies

by Benjamin Plackett, special to C&EN
May 1, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 15

UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party won a landslide election in 2019 by unexpectedly breaking through the “red wall”—a line of constituencies in northern England that stretches from coast to coast. The area used to be the Labour Party’s heartland. The Conservatives managed to win over voters by promising to “level up,” which is political speak for investing more money in the parts of the UK that have long felt neglected in favor of London and its surrounding counties.

Regional disparities
In 2018-2019, the Greater London area and Scotland receives more UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding per capita than other parts of the UK.
Map showing how much the UK government spends on research funding per capita in various regions.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Source: UK Research and Innovation.

A white paper published by the government in February 2022 finally outlines how Johnson intends to make good on his leveling-up pledge. A large part of the answer is focused on scientific research and development.

“It’s heartening to see the government recognize R&D as a vital factor in growth and prosperity for all parts of the UK,” says Sarah Main, the executive director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, which lobbies for better science funding in the UK.

Public investment in R&D, for example, will increase 40% by 2030 in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales along with England’s northern and midland regions, according to the paper. The white paper is unclear whether this means the number of grants will increase by 40% or if the monetary value per grant will rise by 40%. Either way, academics outside London have welcomed the news.

“This isn’t about funding second-rate research; it’s about equalizing opportunities,” says Nick Jennings, vice-chancellor and president of Loughborough University, which is in the Midlands. Institutions in the UK’s “golden triangle” of Cambridge, London, and Oxford have a well-established critical mass of scientists. This helps them attract more than their fair share of government grants, he says.

Jennings hopes that if the government starts to redirect resources, universities elsewhere in the country, including his own, will be better able to keep pace with the golden triangle. “The infrastructure and critical mass of researchers isn’t as strong here compared to London,” he says. “I think bringing these things together is a good way to go, and it’ll help institutions like ours.”

One of the initiatives outlined in the report looks to the US for inspiration and calls for what it terms “innovation accelerators.” The idea is to create something akin to California’s Silicon Valley or Boston’s concentration of biotechnology companies.

Birmingham in England’s West Midlands, Manchester in its North West, and Glasgow in Scotland’s central belt have been selected as pilot cities for the scheme.

Jennings is wary of saying that something that worked in one location will automatically work in another. “But I do think regional hubs of activity are a good thing to encourage,” he says.

Glasgow’s inclusion has been especially welcomed by Universities Scotland, the representative body of the country’s 19 institutions of higher education. “The cluster model is proven to work and to attract greater levels of talent and external investment,” says Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland. “We see a lot in the white paper that could and should benefit Scottish universities.”

The UK government has earmarked £100 million ($130 million) to get the ball rolling, and each of the three cities has been assigned a specific research theme to pursue. Birmingham’s innovation accelerator will focus on the “future of mobility,” while Manchester’s is tasked with health and materials research, and Glasgow’s with advanced manufacturing.

“It’s a decent slab of money,” Jennings says. “It’s difficult to tell if it’s enough, but you can at least do stuff with that.”

The white paper is light on details when it comes to how the pilot accelerators will be managed or evaluated, but should the plan prove successful, it’s likely to be rolled out in further cities.

Jennings believes that the research hubs and leveling-up agenda in general should devote money to infrastructure improvements. “Transport is an important part in all this, and I’m not just talking about going into and out of London—we need to get from region to region as well,” he says. “Digital infrastructure investments would be another good way to spend the money,” he adds, as internet speeds in the UK vary considerably by location.

Ian Scowen is the head of the School of Chemistry at the University of Lincoln, which sits on the border between the Midlands and the North in eastern England. He sees promise in the accelerator program, and he is disappointed that his region wasn’t included in the initial stages. “I can fully understand why those areas have been targeted. They’re large cities, and it’s clear that you’ll get more bang for your buck there,” he says. “But I have to say, if you look at the leveling-up investment across the north of England, it’s not universal.”

This isn’t about funding second-rate research, it’s about equalizing opportunities.
Nick Jennings, vice-chancellor and president, Loughborough University

Johnson has often discussed his ambition to make the UK a “science superpower” and has previously promised to increase British science funding by 80%, reaching £22 billion by 2024. While the leveling-up white paper recommitted to that amount, it also confirmed that funding won’t reach that level until 2026. Despite this, Jennings remains sanguine. “We’ve been through unprecedented times with COVID, and it’s great to see a restatement of the target,” he says. “I don’t think it’s kicking the can down the road.”

For now, though, the allocation of funds is an obstacle to the leveling-up agenda. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the government’s flagship science funding agency, doesn’t distribute its grants evenly throughout the country. According to UKRI records, in 2019 it spent £120 ($160) per capita in Greater London but just £46 in Northern Ireland, for example.

The leveling-up white paper seeks to address this enduring issue by promising a 40% increase in grants awarded to researchers outside the golden triangle. The paper argues that the effect of such a move will be felt beyond lab benches and benefit the wider UK economy.

“It’s a well-trodden path to fuel high-value economies with research and development,” Scowen says. “These interventions are incredibly welcome, and I hope they will help to address a long-standing problem of regional decline in this country.”

Benjamin Plackett is a freelance writer based in rural New South Wales, Australia.


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