Firm Foundations to Rise to Challenges

Authored by: Alice Frost, Director for Knowledge Exchange, Research England and Sean Fielding RTTP, Chair, PraxisAuril

Universities have made long strides in their knowledge exchange (KE), providing knowledge and expertise to help drive innovation, enterprise and local and national growth and wellbeing.  These provide the foundations to rise to the challenges set out in the Government’s R&D roadmap, including supporting COVID-19 recovery.

Research England confirms this week increased funding for KE with Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) rising to £250 million per annum and with greater flexibility in its use and accountability to enable responses to the current crisis.

Research England and PraxisAuril will work together to build on success and meet new challenges.

The McMillan review[1] provided evidence that UK KE practices and performance compares favourably with the best in the world. Latest US-UK comparisons[2] show UK winning a greater proportion of its research funding from industry, and more efficiently turning research into patents, than the US.

The HEBCI survey[3]  has illustrated these rising achievements over the last decade. The latest (2018-19) data shows growing success as well as breadth of contribution. Universities won over £2.5 billion overall for research exploitation activity; over £0.6 billion of CPD; over £0.2 billion in equipment services; and £0.2 billion for local economic development, as well as providing thousands of days of public events. Year on year, universities produce new ventures from staff and students and help these enterprises thrive, raise investment and create jobs.

The responses of universities to the current COVID-19 crisis put flesh on the bones of these dry statistics. They paint a KE rainbow. To pick out just a very few examples: 

  • Oxford's flexible and rapid approach to licensing has delivered one of the World’s biggest vaccine partnerships with AstraZeneca.

  • Sheffield University engineers – who include experts in all stages of manufacturing, including disinfection – are 3D printing face shields for doctors and healthcare workers.
  • Newcastle, Sunderland and Northumbria universities have coordinated a county-wide consortium of manufacturers to mass-produce PPE and redevelop all relevant standards.  

  • Birmingham City University has opened one of its buildings as a Skills Hub, helping students nearing the end of their studies, current NHS staff and returning employees to learn key techniques and skills needed in the frontline battle against coronavirus.

  • De Montfort University is running free events and offering support to companies, freelancers and SMEs in areas critical for business survival .

  • The Royal College of Art’s MA Animation’s Twitter feed is aimed to brighten the lives of those in lockdown with a little comfort, distraction or inspiration.

  • Exeter University supported by Santander UK is giving graduate entrepreneurs the opportunity to apply for grants for approaches to tackle challenges from the pandemic.

  • Cambridge University spin-out Diagnostics for the World has produced a rapid, automated device for coronavirus test and treat facilities.

PraxisAuril has learnt from its KE professional members of the new challenges and opportunities facing them. Across the UK, universities have been taking leading roles in coordinating regional responses and developing regional economic strategy with their local communities. They are working with businesses who are having to react to very challenging market conditions (though most businesses undertaking R&D and higher level skills training are still forging ahead).  There is increasing demand from businesses for practical, immediate support, and that is being mirrored by increasing enthusiasm for KE from researchers who want to put their expertise to good and practical use. Seeing opportunities to support businesses, or step-in with solutions, is a key KE skill. Creativity and resilience are also on display - battling to keep core activities going and thinking about communities and the national emergency. You can read more examples of our members' work here (log-in required). 

Research England and PraxisAuril are working together to support the university professional staffs at the frontline of university KE COVID-19 efforts. We have looked back at previous times of challenge, as example through the 2008 credit crunch, and been inspired by the flexibility and agility demonstrated by the HE sector and its KE partners.

We are very proud of what has been achieved in KE and confident that it can play its part in the challenges to come.

[2] Latest HEBCI-AUTM comparisons 17-18

[3] Higher Education Business and Community Interaction (HEBCI) survey.