Thank you for that welcome, and for inviting me to join you all today.
Well – what a year it’s been.
Last Christmas, who could have imagined the huge difficulties that 2020 would bring, and the turmoil that we’d face as a sector, as a country and as mankind.
It has been a year where all of us have risen to massive, new challenges – and I have to say, the research and development sector, particularly in universities, has responded in an extraordinary way.
The pandemic is of course not over, though we do have a vaccine on the way, and that gives us such a great opportunity to pause and reflect on what we’ve achieved, and to think about how we can prepare for the challenges and opportunities yet to come.
Talking to universities up and down the country, I’ve heard, time and again, how you have adapted and responded over the last year. The way you have pivoted to support our national effort, from treatments to therapies, from testing to providing much-needed equipment, has been frankly astonishing.
And of course, light is now appearing at the end of the tunnel, with an approved vaccine being rolled out in the UK this week – and potentially more on the way, including the promising vaccine being developed by our very own Oxford University. These vaccines are a triumph of human ingenuity – and testament to the R&D sector’s ability to keep rising to new challenges.
But the pandemic has also brought significant challenges for many institutions and I’m very conscious and aware of that. Many research projects have been disrupted. Finances have been uncertain. People have been under unbelievable pressure – the like of which has never been faced before.
That is why, as government, we have stepped in.
In June, we made £280 million available to protect the research base through grant extensions, along with over £62 million in extension funding for UKRI PhD students.
Then in July, we provided universities with important assurance on key funding shortfalls from international students, by announcing the Sustaining University Research Expertise, or as we call it the SURE Fund.
You have told me that this protection has had a very real impact – it has allowed work to continue. And, really importantly, it has saved thousands of jobs.
So before we look to the year ahead, let me first express my gratitude to the members of the University Research Sustainability Taskforce, who we have worked closely together with, for their crucial support and input this year. And to the wider sector for your advice and help, including the Universities UK Board sub-group which helped to develop this Fund.
Protecting our research base today will enable it to drive our economy and recovery tomorrow.
The crisis has brought science, research and innovation into sharper focus for all of us, and in a very powerful way. But science, research and innovation are not just the key to beating this virus – they are the key to building back better.
I feel passionately that we should now all work together, to seize this moment, to get serious about powering up the country.
That is why we set out, in our R&D Roadmap, a really ambitious vision for the future of UK R&D – and I’m genuinely excited by the positive response so far from the sector.
And the recent Spending Review further set out the government’s plan to back research and innovation as the cornerstone of our recovery – with a huge £14.6 billion investment in R&D next year, and with a three year commitment for core research budgets in UKRI. This is a major step on the way to delivering on the government’s commitment to investing £22 billion per year by 2024/25.
This ongoing commitment shows just how vital we believe it is, for the future of the country, for us to become truly innovation-led. Embracing innovation is not only critical to the future of our economy. It is also the key to improving the health and the wellbeing of our society, the security and the resilience of our nation, and to cementing our place in the world. And we have the tremendous advantage of building on world-leading research carried out in our amazing universities and institutes.
The great news is that we are currently ranked an impressive 4th in the Global Innovation Index for 2020, up one place from 2019. And we are solidly in the top 10 best countries in the world for the ease of doing business. This is a really great starting point.
However, we must go further, we cannot be complacent. I want to see the UK play an even greater part in global innovation, expanding our share of innovative markets, leading the world in the transformative technologies and sectors of the future.
I want to see even more businesses connecting with our powerful research base for the first time. For more businesses to commercialise ideas, creating new jobs and services all over the country. For companies to grow and scale their activities, to reach across global markets to make the new way of doing things the norm for everyone.
Part of that is ensuring that we have the right environment for the UK’s innovative small firms to scale up and to take on international markets. Along with incentives that bring researchers to address innovation challenges.
We must do everything we can to make the most of our world-class university research base so that your institutions can work as ambitiously as possible in support of a more innovative economy and society in the UK.
And I know you stand ready to do this. Just take Liverpool, where I visited over the Summer. There, the results of long-standing relationships between the local universities and businesses were vividly clear. For example, the work happening at the Materials Innovation Factory, between the University of Liverpool and Unilever, and supported by government through the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, shows us how a partnership in materials science can drive real innovation in the city region, which turns into benefits for UK PLC.
Examples like this show us how strengthening the partnerships between universities and industry can deliver the truly vibrant innovation ecosystems and clusters of the future. This is how our R&D system can be put to use, in powering up the country, delivering tangible impact in places right across the UK.
We have been listening to views from right across the UK – and seeking input from our new expert place advisory group – to understand how we can build on our excellence in research and innovation, so that more people and places benefit.
Our R&D Places Strategy will set out our plans in more detail next year. But I know how much this agenda matters to you as a sector, and to me, so let me take this opportunity to share some headlines now.
The R&D Places Strategy will ensure that our research and development system delivers real economic and societal benefits in cities, towns, regions, and devolved nations right across the UK.
We want more parts of the UK to attract more private investment into research and development, including overseas investment. And we want to build on our existing system, strengthening what’s there, and building a rich evidence base to support this.
So that’s why we’ll be stepping up our efforts to foster greater collaboration and co-creation between decision-makers at national, devolved, regional and local levels. And we will be factoring the needs and opportunities of places into our decisions about the R&D system – including recognising that local and regional outcomes can be just as ‘excellent’ as national and global outcomes.
But let me be clear. This is not simply about how much money we are spending in each place. Levelling up the United Kingdom is about outcomes, so our focus must be on the impact that our R&D system can have in different places across the country, tackling the constraints which limit the contribution that research and development can make.
Our Places Strategy will set out some of the different approaches needed for different places, taking account of their characteristics and their opportunities to develop.
Crucially, this means building on our existing, high-quality R&D strengths, so that they deliver more ambitious outcomes for more places.
And it is here where I want to challenge universities all over the country to play your part to the fullest.
I already know the impact that universities are having within their places. Just look at Lincoln’s work in agri-robotics and engineering. Or Wolverhampton’s important developments in the built environment. Or Strathclyde’s innovation ecosystem which is creating a hub for entrepreneurs, innovation and collaboration.
These are all such powerful examples of what you as universities can do.
So I am truly excited to see what more you can do, unleashing your potential to make your research and innovation activities become even more relevant in driving growth and prosperity – bringing a better quality of life for more people and more communities.
And this wouldn’t be possible without the talent and dedication of all of the people working in R&D, all over the country.
I’ve talked before about just how central people are to our success as an innovation-led country. But I do want to draw out a few key points here, which will frame our approach for the years ahead.
Firstly, our guiding objective must be to ensure that we have enough people with the right research and innovation skills to meet the needs of our R&D sector and our broader knowledge economy.
This means ensuring that the UK is as attractive as possible to the world’s most talented people. We need to take a hard look at our system to ensure that it is capable of attracting and nurturing the world’s most promising individuals and teams.
But a coherent People and Culture Strategy should also enable us to work in imaginative new ways – unleashing the potential of people in R&D to power up our country. This means bridging the divide between academia and industry, so that people can move more easily between the two.
We must support new collaborations, and seize new opportunities, for people to have a varied career, bringing their skills and experience to create impact in more parts of the R&D sector. And we must take a broader view of workforce development which recognises everyone’s contributions to the R&D effort – that is researchers, technicians, administrators, and leaders.
Having the right culture in place is crucial here. We must be bold in ending the cultural problems in research, where people are told that it is ‘academia or bust’, and that they must either ‘publish or perish’. We should feel confident in taking the lead here, even if this sets us apart from other scientific nations. We must embrace equality and diversity in the system – unleashing the power of difference, and unlocking the talent of more people. And we must stamp out bullying, harassment and scientific misconduct.
This is why reforming our funding and evaluation systems is so important, removing inefficiencies and making bold changes where we need to. This includes removing all unnecessary bureaucracy – it is simply common sense that our brightest minds should be allowed to focus on solving problems, not filling in forms.
But more than that – we must make sure that the incentives we put in place are getting institutions working on those things that matter most for our future, and supporting leadership and trust within our system so that decisions are made by the right people, at the right level, and for the right reasons.
I truly believe that by unlocking the potential in people, our R&D sector will become our global calling card – a key part of our shared identity.
And R&D itself is a globally connected system – where our research sector is stronger because it is open to people from all round the world – whether working here, or as collaborators abroad. Indeed, it is clear to me from all of my discussions and visits that your institutions are already buzzing with talented people from around the globe.
That is something that we must protect and enhance, supporting scientists and researchers to collaborate with their peers globally. And to become a magnet for talented researchers who are attracted to countries that share their values of openness, collaboration and freedom of expression.
That is why we are reforming our immigration system, including introducing the new Global Talent Visa – opening up a vital new fast-track to welcome the world’s top researchers to the UK.
And it is why we said in the R&D Roadmap that we would be working to either associate to Horizon Europe, or to put in place ambitious alternatives that keep supporting global collaboration in innovation and research. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, we should do everything possible to enhance these collaborations, and to be as open as possible to talent.
We have an opportunity to set out a bold and ambitious new approach to global R&D collaboration, which responds to the risks and opportunities of a changing world, and which builds our influence as a nation.
And it is clear that we face new challenges and new risks. The threats to research are evolving, growing and increasingly complex. We need to work together to better understand and mitigate these.
I therefore welcome the new “Managing Risks in Internationalisation” guidelines that Universities UK published in October, which was the product of engagement between UUK and universities with the support of government, and which sets out how universities can manage the risks that come with international collaboration.
Finding the right balance is a big challenge, but it is one that we have a shared interest in tackling. I welcome dialogue in how we do this – recognising and building on the strengths of our universities, as part of our open society, and protecting ourselves from those who might wish to undermine us.
This is something that we should all welcome, because a smart approach to managing risks can complement an open and collaborative approach. With an optimistic but clear-sighted approach, we can continue to develop meaningful and lasting partnerships with researchers and organisations all around the world, with all of the benefits these bring.
And these benefits are huge. From greater economic and societal prosperity. To tackling the challenges of climate change and global health.
And to the deepening of our understanding of ourselves, of each other, and the world around us.
For now, though, I would like to end by reiterating my thanks.
Thank you to all of you, for all your commitment, your adaptability, thanks for your resilience and thanks for joining us on a journey on the Roadmap.
I strongly believe that we have a once in a generation opportunity to rejuvenate our R&D system, to unlock and embrace talent, diversity, resilience and adaptability, and to put our minds to work on powering up our country.