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UK Research and Development Roadmap: Our Thoughts

Published on 1st July 2020, the government’s Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap1 sets out the UK’s vision and ambition for science, research and innovation.

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Bulb’s Project Director, Andrew Squires presents his thoughts in this blog.

The roadmap is a surprisingly easy read, it gives some immediate policy direction, some admirable aspirations and asks some big questions. We are not trying to provide a comprehensive response but have picked up some points of interest to develop a conversation around.

The last few months have demonstrated more than anything in recent history that we need to be thinking bigger, yes teams of talented people need to be focussed on the here and now but we also need to be chasing the next challenge, solve it and move on. Major advancements typically come from those ‘Moonshots’, they need to continually run through the various scientific sectors.

The UK is embedded in the history of science and discovery but the government’s commitment to funding R&D and the production of the roadmap is possibly a demonstration or understanding that the UK needs to refocus its efforts, scientists need freedom to be brilliant, companies cannot be restricted by bureaucracy, we need to keep driving our international reputation forward and we need to commercialize our success for the wider benefit of the UK PLC.

Geographic

The government aspires to widen the science community across different regions, the focus in recent times has been about The Golden Triangle and it being a world class centre for scientific excellence attracting huge international investment – in the knowledge the talent pool exists, inspirational scientific innovators are there in numbers and the facilities are world class.

Is there a danger we dilute its effectiveness and reputation by spreading investment but conversely there will be situations where it makes perfect sense and we can create fresh centres of excellence where education, industry, talent and research will collaborate and thrive?

Ambition

Many of the UK’s historic successes probably stem from a combination of ‘Moonshots & horizon scanning’ which are phrases the report refers to, brilliant people will do this as a simple function of their natural process.

The government needs to demonstrate it will have faith in those striving for something amazing on the understanding they will be backed and backed again if their peers keep faith. If horizon scanning is to bring the right rewards it will benefit from the new UKRI (UK Research & Innovation) structure which may be able to intercede earlier to bring people and ideas together.

I was surprised to see the success and investment levels of Austrian R&D and their global 4th position in terms of GDP, but a little research shows they were having a similar conversation 6-8 years ago and I was ignorant of many of Austria’s historic successes in the field.

Bureaucracy

My conversations with scientists entering the industry echo some of the concerns of the report. They enter the industry to do science, all too soon they become administrators and people managers. Progression in the industry to lead science is slow and the path is unclear and particularly unclear and difficult for a female scientist.

Finally, the tricky bit, successful bids for investment. There is a need for streamlining release of funding in the right areas and may be further support for creators and innovators who are far from enthralled with prospect of producing comprehensive reports and business plans, this may be the stage where those with appropriate expertise from outside science bring their acumen to bear.

Commercialisation

The UK’s love of red tape tends to create inertia just when a business, a solution, a concept needs an injection of energy, cash, belief and a team to deliver it. Technology advances mean the pace of change is accelerating across the world, so we need to be first to market. There are some examples coming through of great collaborations between higher education, industry and science which have dramatically compressed traditional timescales, this needs to become the norm. In turn success will push the supply chain – industry and education? – to raise their game and as always, this ripples out to improve wider performance and hopefully the UK’s productivity/manufacturing output will return to previous high levels.

Talent

Almost everything else is academic if we do not get this right. Should the current University structure be reviewed? Is it still fit for purpose/does it represent value? Brilliant minds are leaving the sector too early, how do we retain them? Is this about mapping out a career path, is it about the lack of female role models – if that is it then these are surmountable. Are there changes to their working environment that will make them feel more like they are acknowledged as young scientists and people with places that excite and feel part of a community that is striving to improve the human condition?

Some efforts have been made to ease the ability of international scientists to work in the UK and students to learn and stay working in the UK, surely this has to go further still, scientific creativity and success comes out of collaboration and it is most prolific when people truly work together.

There is so much more to talk about how science will underpin the success of the UK being Carbon Net Zero by 2050 but overall, this is such a positive release from the government. This will underpin our success as we come out from under the COVID-19 cloud and it would be great for this to become a live road map where we are able to track the success and watch and contribute to it at each major turn.

References:

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-research-and-development-roadmap

Andrew Squires
Project Director
Bulb Interiors & Laboratories

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