It is notoriously difficult to predict the technologies of the future: who can forget Tomorrow’s World presenter Raymond Baxter confidently espousing the merits of paper underwear, or ‘Whispering’ Ted Lowe being forced to improvise by an uncooperative snooker-playing robot on the same programme?
These outlandish glimpses into our imagined future may have turned out to be some way off the mark, but they illustrate the importance of producing sufficient ideas that there are guaranteed to be some good ones among them. And that means a sufficient number of creative individuals to support a critical mass of activity, from generating the ideas to ensuring that the best concepts are recognised and developed into new technologies. The success of ARM Holdings is just one recent example of how the UK can deliver global impact through this process. And this isn’t just about technologies: better evidence to support government and private sector decision-making, and contributions to the cultural fabric of the country are just as important.
In the UK, universities are at the forefront of science and innovation, helping drive the economy through the exploitation of world-leading research. This isn’t the case everywhere: in Germany, for example, research and innovation are led by national institutes such as the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, while national laboratories and major companies such as Microsoft, Google and IBM play a much greater role in the US.
Currently working its way through Parliament is the government’s higher education and research bill, which will bring together university-led research and innovation under a new body known as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This offers the chance to join up the scientific process, from discovery and exploration to exploitation and impact – provided the right structures and leaders are put in place. The proposed reforms may also serve to enhance opportunities for interdisciplinary research and open up new ways of engaging with industry and other non-university partners. And UKRI may give science a strong voice in government.
But there are risks, too, in implementing changes to a system that already delivers more influential research per pound spent than any other in the world. The new bill makes scant mention of postgraduate researchers, who provide much of the fuel that powers the UK’s science and innovation engine, and any reduction in the independence of the formerly separate research councils must not come at the expense of their ability to support ambitious discipline-specific research. This is the foundation upon which interdisciplinary research can be built.
Of course, the progression of this bill comes against the backdrop of Brexit. It almost goes without saying that membership of the EU, with its research networks and excellence-driven funding, has been good for UK universities. Oxford University alone received more than £66m of research funding via the EU in 2014/15, while more than 25% of our postgraduate research students and a significant proportion of research staff come from the EU. What is required now, though, are concrete ideas of how we can make Brexit work; how we can ensure the UK retains its status as a major global hub of research and innovation.
First, we must maintain the movement of people. World-leading research requires the best people and the best ideas, regardless of where they come from. The US, for instance, has traditionally been much more flexible on the inward movement of students and researchers, with no minimum salary thresholds or points systems. The right to stay in the country afterwards for additional training, including in industry, has also been relatively easy. While not having the same flexibility as our current arrangements for European citizens, this is a model we can look to replicate to make sure the brightest and best-trained non-UK nationals continue to see these shores as the most attractive place to develop their careers in science and technology.
Second, and while Philip Hammond’s announcement that the UK government will underwrite EU-funded projects post-Brexit is welcome, the best thing the government can do now is increase the amount of money ring-fenced for science so that we can continue to build on and deliver ideas and technologies at increasing pace in the absence of international funding streams similar in purpose to those currently provided by the EU. Indeed, regardless of whether British institutions can retain full access to EU funding sources post-Brexit, we cannot ignore the fact that comparable countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Israel, South Korea and Japan all spend more on research and development as a proportion of GDP than the UK.
Third, while the UK has never had a problem generating good ideas, we have – with notable exceptions such as ARM – traditionally been less good at exploiting them. Investment will be a key theme for this government: invest more not just in research but in innovation and the infrastructure required to support it, such as building on the successful Higher Education Innovation Fund, expanding the Catapult programme that sees universities working in partnership with industry, and developing regional infrastructure, including housing and transport, that supports the growth of knowledge-led businesses. Thus, with private sector support in the form of focused long-term capital funds like the recently created Oxford Sciences Innovation, we can develop an innovation ecosystem to rival the best in the world, delivering both economic growth and societal impact that will help cement the UK’s position among the most ambitious and forward-thinking nations.
Brexit poses big challenges for UK science and innovation, and we are some way from having all the answers at this stage. But what is not in doubt is that we must continue to provide a world-class research environment with global reach and outlook; one that brings the best ideas and the best people to UK universities. Oxford is far from being alone in the higher education sector in making a vital contribution to the UK’s economy through the creation of new science-related jobs and businesses, and by offering an avenue for highly skilled people to enter the country. Our colleagues at universities across the UK are equally active in promoting knowledge-led impact from research.
Paper pants and snooker-playing robots didn’t take off, but countless other UK-born innovations have made it big in recent years and will continue to do so, regardless of Brexit. The government must keep the door open to overseas talent, increase its funding for research, and give its full support to our innovation ecosystem to ensure we not only sustain but build on a national strength that is difficult to overestimate.