Using R&D to take us forward post- Covid-19

  • 8 July 2020
  • Business, General
  • Alana Cullen

In March 2020 the government committed to increasing its total expenditure into research and development to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, a monumental increase from the 2016 amount of 1.7%. Now the government have published their new R&D roadmap which reaffirms this commitment and lays out the plans ahead. 

In between these two affirmations of investment into R&D there has been, and continues to be, a global pandemic. Upon reflection, Covid-19 can be seen as a catalyst for R&D – the world is now, more than ever, dependent upon science and technology to build a stronger, more resilient future. The promising and ambitious roadmap reflects this realisation that our future lies in the hands of scientists and innovators, to help overcome some of the world’s biggest challenges.

The commitment to support the breadth of R&D across the UK will help build “a future which is greener, fairer, healthier, more resilient and more innovative than ever before.” Alongside investment into R&D, the roadmap reassures that all areas of R&D will be funded, not just pockets of research. This will be achieved, it says, by cutting unnecessary red tape, making it easier to apply for research grants. There is also an abundance of references to increased moonshot research, or blue-sky thinking – which affirms investment into transformative and ambitious research that could have long term, but initially unknown benefits. This model will be based on the US’ model of Advanced Research Project Agency, a funding body that fuelled the invention of the internet. One hopes that this kind of body in the UK would create value by focusing on important issues such as tackling climate change, issues that are of key public interest.  

The new roadmap captures the importance of innovation going forward and encompasses this into the heart of its plans. Setting up an innovation expert group will help review and improve the innovation systems, “strengthening interactions between discovery research, applied research, innovation, commercialisation and deployment.” Boosting business-led innovation will support this. Already support structures have been developed to help reach these goals: a new collaboration taskforce established at the National Centre for Universities and Business will help consider how to foster partnerships between universities and businesses. Rebalancing innovation geographically can be used as a tool for regional economic development. As the UK recovers from Covid-19 this is a critical opportunity to make a more resilient UK economy which has innovation at its core. 

Recognition of the issues within R&D suggest that there will be change going forward into the R&D decade. Acknowledgement of unhealthy research culture, highlighting the harassment, bullying and discrimination faced in the field, is essential in adopting and sustaining a healthy work environment. Covid-19 has demonstrated how important collaboration, knowledge- sharing and support for colleagues is, and a fair, efficient and bias- free system which embraces diversity, will help carry this support forward to the everyday workplace. 

The acknowledgement that R&D is required on both a local and national level is essential. Supporting initiatives outside of the South East of England will help align R&D with devolved priorities, such as the Cheshire Science Corridor in the North West. Initiatives such as these will also help secure new jobs which is essential post- Covid. Regional development will not only foster greater collaboration but will offer clarity to the public about R&D funding. 

Academics and industries have been continually concerned over the effect of Brexit on international research collaboration. The roadmap recognises these concerns and offers a clearer government position on science post- Brexit. The set-up of the new Office for Talent is aimed to make it easier for global scientists, researchers and innovators to come to the UK – it will work with the immigration office to help them overcome any barriers they may face after Brexit. The roadmap reflects community consensus that the UK must remain in Horizon Europe after Brexit and states the importance of seeking “a fair and balanced deal” for participation in EU R&D schemes. The UK will therefore seek to be fully associated into Horizon Europe and Eurotom if such a “fair and balanced deal” can be achieved. The Wellcome Trust state that a UK post Brexit EU-UK deal is possible and will be beneficial for both parties. However, with the possibility that there is not such a deal, then the government have committed to match any funding shortfalls. But the UK’s establishment of a scheme similar to Horizon will be near impossible to create, as science is global, and requires collaboration. Cutting this vital link with Horizon could be catastrophic to UK science, economy and will be detrimental to the public. 

The roadmap sets out a list of ideals, a model of how R&D should be going forwards. Already the wheels are in motion of how to make this map into the new norm, and make it as beneficial for the public as possible. Moving forwards, there is the opportunity for people to feed into long term development of roadmap, with consultations occurring throughout July and August. Certainly, this new ground-breaking plan offers promise going forward, beginning the conversation of how to improve what went before. 

Alana Cullen is a MSc student at Imperial College London studying Science Communication, and is the Social Media and Communication's Officer for the Foundation for Science and Technology.