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UK R&D: is the focus too narrow?

Last week Prof Sir Mark Walport, who will be the first chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a new umbrella body that will oversee the distribution of £6bn of research funding, praised the UK government for the additional £4.7billion in funds it has made available for UK Research & Development up until 2020-21.

The government’s investment in science, research and technology is the biggest increase in publicly funded R&D since 1979, according to Jo Johnson the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

This increase comes as the government prepares a white paper on industrial policy which is expected to focus on 10 key areas that need attention, such as infrastructure, inward investment and skills, and cultivating world-leading sectors all of which the government has looked to address through a variety of limited initiatives.

That’s why its commitment to science, research and technology has appeared so impressive.

However, according to a new research paper from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, that increase in spending, while welcome, is being targeted at too narrow a range of sectors – healthcare and medicine, robotics and artificial intelligence, batteries, self-driving vehicles, materials for the future, and satellites and space technology.

These are cutting edge sectors but account for only 1% of employment in the economy and just 10% of jobs in manufacturing.

We talk about UK research and development but will it only be those places like Cambridge, which has twice as many scientific jobs as the whole of the Midlands, for example, that ultimately benefit.

Neil Tyler

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