UK research funding less geographically concentrated than US and Germany – Hepi report

While acknowledging geographical hotspots in UK research funding, the report finds that improving outcomes will require more than levelled-up investment

Although the UK might fairly be accused of regional imbalance in its distribution of research funding, its closest comparators – including the US and Germany – have an even greater geographical concentration of financial backing.

That is the conclusion of a new report – ‘Regional policy and R&D: evidence, experiments and expectations’ – published today (13 May) by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

While acknowledging the existence of geographical hotspots for research funding, the report’s three University College London-based authors say that merely noting regional differences is too simplistic an analysis of the situation; indeed, variations in funding levels within regions were often found to be greater than between them.

All of which means that tackling regional inequalities is going to require sharper focus on the purpose of R&D investment, say the trio, as well as stronger leadership from civic authorities below the national level.

The UK already has areas of considerable research strength across the country, but more ambition is needed on how to better leverage and amplify them – Report co-author, Sarah Chaytor

“The picture of R&D activity across the UK and internationally is more complex than it may seem at first glance,” said co-author Grace Gottlieb.

“This report challenges received wisdom on funding patterns and resulting policy; we hope it proves useful in shedding light on some of these nuances and informs guiding principles for regional R&D initiatives going forward.

“In particular, improving the sustainability of research funding will be key to ensuring smaller institutions can take on more research grants without incurring major funding deficits.”

The report’s authors are alive to the fact that their being based in London could make people sceptical of their conclusions, writing in the preface:

Some readers may raise their eyebrows when they see that the authors are from UCL: one of the UK’s larger universities, based within the ‘golden triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge and attracting over £500 million in research funding annually. Let us be clear: we agree unreservedly that bold actions are needed to address unacceptable inequalities in wealth and opportunity in the UK. This report is not a surreptitious attempt to get a better deal for Bloomsbury at the expense of the rest of the country.

In related news: Government must urgently reconsider research budget cuts, urges UUK

The report offers six recommendations on how to advance more robust regional R&D initiatives:

  • Set out measurable objectives A clear vision and regional metrics for success could help the regional R&D agenda
  • Focus on impact Regional metrics should concentrate on the outcomes of research, not the level of investment
  • Build greater strengths through partnerships Nurture inter-regional collaborations to improve research impact
  • Create strong civic partners at regional and local levels Let civic authorities lead regional R&D initiatives within a national framework
  • Integrate regional, national and global interests Close relationships between national and regional R&D are key
  • Ensure financial sustainability for university research Improving the reliability of funding would enable stronger regional R&D

“The UK already has areas of considerable research strength across the country, but more ambition is needed on how to better leverage and amplify them,” said co-author Sarah Chaytor.

“Stimulating greater collaboration between universities within and across regions, including those with very different characteristics, could enhance the impact of research within regions. This also requires recognising the vital role of local leadership in strengthening regional and national R&D.”

You may also like: In March, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced review aiming to cut through research red tape


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