The U.K.’s science industry continues to be lavished with praise and attention by this current Government.
The latest announcement: a new research plan to be spearheaded by Sir Patrick Vallance, the U.K.’s highly regarded chief scientific adviser, as overseer of a new Office for Science and Technology Strategy.
Its stated aim, unveiled by the Prime Minister, is to cement the U.K.’s position as a global ‘science superpower’.
I’ve written a lot about government R&D funding recently. But what is worthy of further discussion is how this administration’s flagship ‘Levelling Up’ agenda dovetails with the aspirations of its new research plan.
Because for both to be a success, at least in the near term, we need to build on existing strengths and foundations rather than supporting speculative projects in places without any of the right raw ingredients.
While this inevitably, and rightly, will see more money flow into the established scientific clusters in the so-called Golden Triangle between Cambridge, Oxford and London, it also demands a doubling down on the burgeoning science ecosystems that exist in many of the U.K.’s regions.
A cursory search for recent good news stories from the U.K.’s science and tech sector reveals many great regional successes to build on.
Take the University of Manchester’s plans for the development of a new £1.5bn innovation district, ID Manchester, which recently took a major step forward following the appointment of Bruntwood SciTech (my employer) as its preferred joint venture partner.
Down the road in Cheshire, IBM is going to invest £210m into AI and quantum computing discovery and innovation at the Hartree Centre. And across the Pennines in the North East, the Fujifilm Diosynth facility in Teesside is to manufacture 60m doses of Novavax’s COVID vaccine.
These all build on a compelling narrative about the U.K. regions’ global competitive advantages across the spectrum of science industries.
Medicines manufacturing is a significant strength, in the North of England especially. Alongside Fujifilm Diosynth we have AstraZeneca’s huge manufacturing facility in Macclesfield, Cheshire, which reportedly accounts for 1% of the U.K.’s annual economic output.
The North is also home to many of the U.K.’s leaders in complex medicine and drug discovery, such as the Medicines Discovery Catapult; diagnostics – with QIAGEN basing its Global Centre of Excellence for Precision Medicine in Manchester; infectious disease research at institutions such as the Infection Innovation Consortium – iiCON – led by Liverpool’s School of Tropical Medicine; and genomics, where the U.K. is a global leader in Covid test sequencing, at places like the NHS hubs in Newcastle and Manchester.
Across the U.K.’s regions, there are centres of excellence in other specialisms too. Edinburgh has its fast growing BioQuarter, Birmingham a data-driven healthcare cluster and Bristol an exciting deep tech scene. I could go on…
Each region has distinct strengths drawn from their local academic and clinical ecosystems and the talent they can attract. When combined they become a formidable source of the U.K.’s scientific superpowers.
My ask of Sir Patrick and his colleagues in their new roles is to use long-term and sustained funding strategies with place at their heart. Leverage the local networks and infrastructure that already provide the foundations of each region’s success.
It is not the case that the U.K.’s regions want to take money away from London and the South East. Each geography complements the other and should be given targeted support on merit of their own capability, not because less should be going to one area now as it had benefited more in the past.
The same is true of talent and private capital. There is no desire, nor necessity, for the regions to compete with one another. Rather, by combining strengths, the U.K. can compete globally as one.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, to an investor from the U.S. or China, the few hundred miles between our cities is nothing. They can easily comprehend the U.K. as one cohesive area of innovation rather than siloed districts.
The UK is a scientific superpower, not one city or region. If the Government’s new plan sticks closely to this ethos it could well help cement the country’s position on the global stage for many more years to come.
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