With the Commons Science Select Committee on “The role of technology, research and innovation in the COVID-19 recovery”

The House of Commons Select Committee on Science and technology visited Manchester on 21st September, and I was asked to give oral evidence, with others, to its inquiry on “The role of technology, research and innovation in the COVID-19 recovery”. The full, verbatim, transcript is available here; here are a few highlights.

My opening statement

Chair: Perhaps I can start with a question to Professor Jones. Everybody around the world associates Manchester with technology over the ages, but if we look at the figures, the level of research and development spending investment, in the north-west at least, is below the national average. Give us a feeling for why that might be and whether that is inevitable and reflects things that we cannot help or what we should be doing about it, bearing in mind that we will be going into a bit more detail later in the session.

Professor Jones: On the question of the concentration of research, this is something that has happened over quite a long time. The figure that I have in my mind is that 46% of all public and charitable R&D happens in London and the two regions that contain Oxford and Cambridge. There is no doubt—it is not just a question of Manchester—that the distribution of public research money across the country is very uneven.

That has been a consequence partly of deliberate decisions—there has been a time when the idea has been, particularly when funding seemed tight, that it would be better to concentrate money in a few centres—but when it is given out competitively without regard for place, there is a natural tendency for concentration. Good people go to where existing facilities are. That allows you to write stronger bids and in that case there is a self-reinforcing element. That process is played out over quite a long time. It has got us to the situation of quite extreme imbalance.

I have been talking there about public R&D. It is very important to think about private R&D as well. There is an interesting disparity between where the private sector invests its R&D money and where the public sector does. One finds places like Cambridge, which are remarkable places, where there is a lot of public sector R&D but then the private sector piles in with a great deal of money behind that. Those are great places that the country should be proud of and encourage. Particularly in the north-west, in common with the east midlands and west midlands, too, the private sector is investing quite a lot in R&D, but the public sector is not following those market signals and, in a sense, exploiting what in many ways are innovation economies that could be made much stronger by backing that up with more public funding.

On excellence and places

Graham Stringer: This is my final question on this section. The drift of great scientists to the golden triangle has been going on for a long time. Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom a quarter of a mile down the road in what is now a committee room, sadly. Rutherford left Manchester and went to the Cavendish afterwards. Do you think it is possible to stop that drift, because money also follows great scientists as well as institutions? The University of Manchester is a world-class university, but do you think it is possible to stop that drift and get University of Manchester, and some of the other great northern universities, up the pecking order to be in the same region as Imperial, Oxford and Cambridge?

Professor Jones: Yes, there is scope to do that. You mentioned Rutherford. I used to teach in the Cavendish myself, so I have made the reverse journey.

The point that is important, if we talk about excellence, is that people loosely say Cambridge is excellent. Cambridge is not excellent. Cambridge is a place that has lots of excellent people. The thing that defines excellence is people, and people will respond to facilities. If we create excellent facilities, we create an excellent environment, then excellent people from all over the world will want to come to those places.

It is possible to be too deterministic about this. One can create the environment that will attract excellent people from all over the world. That is what we ought to aim to do if we want to spread out scientific excellence across the country.

Graham Stringer: To simplify: the answer is for investment in absolutely world-class kit in universities away from the golden triangle?

Professor Jones: It is world-class kit, but it is also the wider intellectual climate: excellent colleagues. People like to go where there are excellent colleagues, excellent students. That is the package that you need.

On “levelling-up” and R&D spending

Chair: As you say, clearly it would not be a step towards achieving the status of a science superpower if we were reducing core budget, so the opportunity to have a greater quantity of regional investment comes from an increase in the budget. Is it fair to infer logically from that that, of the increase, you would expect a higher proportion to be regionally distributed than the current snapshot of the budget?

Professor Jones: Yes, absolutely. If we take the Government at their word about saying that there are going to be genuine increases in R&D, this does give us a unique opportunity because we have had quite flat research budgets for a couple of decades. Up to now we have always been faced with that problem: do you really want to take money away from the excellence of Oxford and Cambridge to rebalance? That is a difficult issue because, as I said in my opening remarks, Cambridge is a fantastic asset to the UK’s economy. But if we do have this opportunity to see rising budgets, if we are going from £14.9 billion to £22 billion—that is £7 billion of rise that has been pencilled in—it would be very disappointing if a reasonable fraction of that was not ring-fenced to start to address these imbalances, specifically with the aim of boosting the economy of those places with productivity that is too low needs to be raised.

I think that tying it very directly to the Government’s goals of levelling up, increasing the productivity of economically lagging regions as well as their other very important goals of net zero, would be entirely reasonable.

Chair: That is literally and specifically what you are describing, is it not—levelling up, in the sense that you have said you do not want to take down the budgets of existing institutions, you want to increase the others? That is levelling up.

Professor Jones: Indeed.

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