Public spending on R&D in the UK is highly geographically imbalanced, as discussed by Richard Jones in his recent NESTA paper with Tom Forth, “The Missing £4 billion: making R&D work for the whole UK”. Public R&D investment is disproportionately concentrated in London and the Greater Southeast, those parts of the country that already have higher productivity. Perhaps most surprisingly, public R&D investment doesn’t always follow the investment that business makes in R&D; in regions like the Midlands and Northwest public investment is low given the scale of business innovation.
With the government’s stated intention to increase public R&D intensity substantially, there is an opportunity to begin to correct these imbalances. This needs to be done in a way that maximises the benefits public R&D can bring, both in driving economic growth, and in supporting strategic imperatives such as the transition to a zero-carbon energy economy. For the first time for many years, the role of R&D in regional economic development is being taken seriously in Whitehall, as part of the government’s wider “levelling up” agenda. A “Levelling Up” White Paper is expected imminently, which, it is promised, will incorporate a new strategy to ensure that more places in the UK host world-leading and globally connected innovation clusters, creating more jobs, growth and productivity in those areas.
What might this mean for regions such as Greater Manchester? Professor Jones will argue that new public investment in R&D should focus on translational research in fields that will support the existing business base and drive new inward investment, which draw on existing excellence in fundamental science, and add to the national research landscape. Private sector partnerships will be crucial in designing the new research capacity we need to create to fulfil the promise of “levelling up”, and a new organisation, “Innovation GM”, has been set up to bring together the private sector, the GM Combined Authority and the city’s universities, to work with central government to do this.
Richard Jones is Vice-President for Regional Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Manchester; he is an experimental soft matter physicist. His first degree and PhD in physics both come from Cambridge University, and following postdoctoral work at Cornell University, U.S.A., he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. He was a Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield from 1998, moving to Manchester in 2020. In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his work in the field of polymers and biopolymers at surfaces and interfaces, and in 2009 he won the Tabor Medal of the UK’s Institute of Physics for his contributions to nanoscience. He was a member of the Sheffield/Manchester Industrial Strategy Commission, and has
written extensively about science and innovation policy, for example in the aforementioned report “The Missing £4 Billion: making research and development work for the whole UK” (with Tom Forth, NESTA 2020). He is the Science Advisor for the newly formed public/private organisation “Innovation Greater Manchester”.