Levelling-up ‘very long-term’ agenda, Strength in Places chair warns

Kate Barker, chair of the Strength in Places Fund, says it’s too early to properly assess the impact of programmes so far

The panel chair of the Strength in Places Fund has said it is premature to evaluate the fledgling projects that received its investment, warning ministers the “levelling-up agenda is going to need to be very long-term”.

Economist Kate Barker spoke to a Westminster Higher Education Forum conference on universities and their contribution to local and regional development about her role as chair of the assessment panel of the Strength in Places Fund, the UKRI place-based research funding programme.

Barker said that – in her opinion – it was “clearly too early to really see what the results of these programmes will be”. An ongoing evaluation of the fund – which has a £236 million budget up to 2021-22 and has so far supported seven projects – seeks to examine its value for money and explore the most effective forms of place-based funding. UKRI has invested £186 million so far and will soon announce the second wave of projects.

She explained: “I often worry that in the UK, the obsession with evaluation is a bit like when you pull up carrots to see how their roots are getting on and stick them back in and are surprised when they don’t flourish.”

Every levelling-up agenda is going to need to be very long-term. That’s probably not good news for the somewhat impatient government that we have at the moment
– Kate Barker

The Strength in Places Fund entailed “a considerable amount of taxpayer money” and must “demonstrate clearly that the fund is delivering for taxpayers”, Barker said. The fund was announced in 2017 and supports research collaboration between universities, research organisations, industry, local government and Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The evaluation would “build an evidence base on what works” for UKRI and ministers, Barker told delegates, which is “absolutely crucial as the levelling-up agenda proceeds”.

Despite this potential of place-based funding initiatives, Barker warned the government that results would not be immediately forthcoming.

“Every levelling-up agenda is going to need to be very long-term. That’s probably not good news for the somewhat impatient government that we have at the moment, but I certainly think it’s the right way to approach these issues,” she explained, adding that some areas of the country “seem to have more difficulty in putting these bids together”.

UKRI has funded seven projects across the British mainland. The projects include a Belfast-based project to uncover technology to decarbonise maritime transport, a financial data research institute in Edinburgh and a ‘living laboratory’ for medical research in Glasgow.

The panel has also invested funds in specialist research laboratories for infectious disease therapeutics in Liverpool, a creative hub for media production research in Bristol and Bath, and a new centre for “climate-smart” food production and processing in Kent.

This summer, the government is expected to publish its R&D Place Strategy, the Plan for Growth and an Innovation Strategy. On future funding, Barker said: “We’re all waiting for a variety of announcements from government building on the Plan for Growth that came out from the Treasury with the budget.”


Read more: Research England publishes first Knowledge Exchange Framework

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