What should we do?

#3 Put universities
at the heart of an

The pandemic is forcing us to change direction, to rethink what we do
and how we do it.

We ask our experts:
where should we go from here?

Put universities at the heart of an innovation-led recovery

by Tomas Ulrichsen

Universities have stepped up to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic. Tomas Ulrichsen, an expert on universities and their role in innovation systems, argues that the UK must protect its R&D and innovation capabilities in the short term, and build on these strengths for the future.

The climate crisis. Ageing populations. Persistent economic and social inequality. A decade of stagnant productivity growth. Many towns and cities ‘left behind’. Brexit.

It was into this British landscape that the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, creating a new crisis demanding immediate action.

The response to the pandemic shows how quickly universities, businesses and their supply chains, public health authorities, hospitals, regulators and others can mobilise to develop practical solutions to time-critical problems.

Working closely with these partners, university researchers across the UK have driven an unbelievably fast vaccine development process and setup of a nationwide therapeutic clinical trial; developed rapid diagnostic tools, early detection and warning systems, and applied innovative genome technologies to map the spread of the disease; as well as designed sharable ventilators, non-invasive breathing aids and affordable high quality ventilators for low-income countries. These are just a few of the many examples.

Universities have also been active in their support of local communities and businesses, whether it’s been in the manufacture and distribution of PPE in Sheffield, informing the local health response in Cambridge, or in helping smaller firms to navigate the economic crisis in Cambridge, Cranfield and Lancaster.

“Universities are an integral part of the innovation system”
Tomas Ulrichsen

University research can lead to ground-breaking technologies that transform our lives as well as help to drive incremental improvements that drive productivity and efficiency gains. Universities also help firms adopt new innovations; develop the skills to innovate; inform regulatory frameworks and government policies; and build enabling physical infrastructure for innovation.

But they don’t work alone. University research tends to produce very early stage technologies that need further development and investment – often by the private sector – to turn them into the practical applications that will meet an economic or societal need.

The crisis highlights how getting a new vaccine or ventilator out of the lab and into the hands of medical professionals relies on effort and action by others in the innovation system – businesses, hospitals, public sector agencies, investors, regulators and patients; this process is accelerated when everyone is working towards a collective goal.

Many of the organisations central to the innovation process are now facing major disruption and are having to make tough choices about what they do with their increasingly scarce resources.

Emerging evidence suggests that – with the exception of those involved in the health response – R&D and innovation is being squeezed by many firms as they focus on core business concerns. For the UK, this comes on the back of dramatic declines in innovation activity since 2016. This is particularly concerning as studies of past crises such suggest that those businesses able to carry on investing in R&D through the crisis were likely to recover more quickly and emerge more competitive.

All this comes at a time when, despite the turmoil caused by the pandemic, the UK government has committed to dramatically increasing its funding for R&D, and reducing the significant economic inequalities that persist across the country.

Fundamental questions are being asked about the longer-term structure and function of the UK research and innovation system, including the role of universities.

Where should we go from here?

Countries around the world, not least in the UK, USA and Europe, have long wrestled with the question of how to take knowledge generated and developed in their universities and harness it for the good of the economy and humankind. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need.

In the UK, we now have an opportunity to build an innovation system that is better able to tackle the urgent global, national and local economic and societal challenges we face and deliver a healthier and more equitable, sustainable and prosperous future.

The following recommendations are shaped in part by a report I authored before the pandemic on developing university–industry–government partnerships fit for the future, and now viewed through the lens of the current crisis

Keep the research and innovation system working through the crisis and the recovery period. Protect the ability of universities, translational R&D institutes, Catapults, businesses and others to invest in both the underpinning R&D and the process of turning new ideas into innovations.

Balance increased research funding with increased support for developing emerging ideas towards innovations that generate impact. Funding for translational R&D, commercialisation and innovation should become increasingly challenge-driven and partnership-focused, and include support for building the necessary skills, infrastructure, business models and supply chains to deploy technologies successfully in the real world to create impact.

Take research outputs even further along the innovation pathway in universities. As the economic crisis takes hold, the private sector may be less able to invest in very early stage R&D with universities. During this period, universities – with government support – may need to step in.

Break down the barriers that hamper collaborations between technical and non-technical disciplines. Tackling complex societal challenges requires not just technical solutions, but also an understanding of how people and organisations behave, organise and interact. Social sciences, humanities and the arts need to be an integral part of the innovation process.

Continue to invest in the support system that makes innovation collaborations, commercialisation and knowledge exchange possible. Universities have been able to respond to the pandemic so quickly and flexibly because of an increasingly strategic and integrated approach to generating breakthrough ideas and supporting their further development towards application. This dual focus must be preserved.

Increase support for universities to address long-standing local economic challenges and help local industries renew. Universities can play a pivotal role in recovery, from building innovation districts and driving entrepreneurial activity, to leveraging expertise and resources, to helping local firms solve technical problems, find new markets and increase productivity.

Learn from the experiences of the pandemic response. The speed with which partnerships have been assembled, contracts negotiated and barriers overcome in very testing lockdown environments is truly remarkable. It shows what can be done. We must find ways of applying the same urgency and collective sense of purpose to tackling the other critical global challenges of our time.

Whats next?

Decisions made today about whether, how and where we invest in R&D and innovation will shape our economic recovery and renewal in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether the UK is able to take a leading role in tackling the many critical global societal challenges moving forward.

As we move from the immediate crisis into the longer-term economic recovery period, and the government looks to realise its investment in the research base, it is crucial that decisions are evidence-led.

At Cambridge, with the support of Research England, we have established a Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation that will help policymakers, funders and university leaders to confront the questions of how the UK can best protect and build its R&D and innovation capabilities.

The Unit will bridge the gap between advances in academic research and the practical needs of policy practice, initially working in three areas:

  • Developing an evidence base on how the COVID-19-induced economic crisis is affecting universities’ abilities to contribute to innovation.
  • Improving understanding of research-to-innovation commercialisation pathways and how policies and practices could be strengthened to deliver increased value to the UK.
  • Advancing the data available to better capture universities’ many and varied contributions to innovation.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen our global position in research, unleash a new wave of innovation, enhance our national security and revitalise our international ties.” These words, taken from the UK government R&D roadmap published in July 2020, show that the time and the appetite to drive change is now. We have to get the decisions right.

Tomas Ulrichsen is Director of the new Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation. Based at Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, the Unit is working in partnership with the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy and the National Centre for Universities and Business. He is an expert adviser to government funding agencies on knowledge exchange and his work has been instrumental in providing a robust evidence base to support their policy development and evaluation work. He recently authored a report capturing key issues for developing universityindustrygovernment partnerships fit for the future emerging from a major 2019 Summit that assembled almost 150 senior university, industry and policy leaders to discuss this topic.

Editor: Sarah Fell
Artwork: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh

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