The UK is on the cusp of what we hope will be the greatest surge in public investment in science and innovation for a generation. And the launch of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) brings a radical reorganisation of its institutions. This presents a huge opportunity to do things better, and not just to remake the existing system on a grander scale.
We want to see a UK research and innovation system which is not only more productive and dynamic, securing long-term economic growth and competitiveness, but also fairly geared towards addressing the priorities of the people within it.
There have been important discussions about the need to shape the ‘direction’ as well as speed of economic growth through investments in science and innovation - for instance about ‘mission driven,’ ‘transformative’ and ‘inclusive’ innovation policy. Yet we are still early in implementing the bold shifts in policy thinking and practical organisation required, and in understanding how to deal with the complex trade-offs.
The ‘biomedical bubble’ is the ideal lens through which to consider these difficult balances. The authors show it is a field the UK excels in, and one that has benefited disproportionately from public funding as a result. But as funding as grown, the productivity of that investment has declined. The authors question not only a broken R&D model, but an endemic bias in public support for R&D which still hugely prioritises manufacturing over services, decades after the UK economy shifted. They also question a system in which the health benefits of research and innovation spending do not spread in a way that is fast or fair enough.
Around half of all health issues are rooted in environmental and behavioural factors, yet too little of the R&D budget for health is invested in exploring these more fully.
The authors are not arguing against vital medical research or discovery-led biological research. Far from it. They are champions of UK science investment. But they are arguing for a review and reassessment of spending priorities, and a more sophisticated way to get the balance right in the future.
So far this concentration on biomedical life sciences has not been challenged or debated. We believe that there needs to be a proper debate about whether or not this is the right balance. For the first time, this report sets out the evidence, facts and analysis we need to have that debate.
This report raises important and challenging questions, and also offers practical ways to capitalise on the opportunity of UKRI for the UK’s future. We look forward to the ideas and conversations it generates, and to working with UKRI and the wider community to shape an innovation system that powers a thriving future economy and society.