Learning from Lockdown  


As we sense the beginning of the end of our third pandemic lockdown (everything crossed) – thanks largely to the magnificent efforts of researchers, tech transfer offices, industry partners, and the NHS to develop and roll-out a vaccine programme – there is a desire to understand what impact the pandemic has had on our pre-pandemic grand challenge; boosting the level of R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP.  
 

Many organisations – PraxisAuril among them – have sought to understand how day-to-day business has been affected by the pandemic-induced lockdown, in terms of economic consequences and the impact on working life. Sector-wide business surveys haven’t only focused on the now but also on the anticipated return to a ‘new normal’. We heard through our December conference just how much our KE professionals are ‘pivoting’ to provide new types of KE support, but also maintaining business as usual in tough times.  

There is a clear desire to gather data and narrative, quickly; to understand which sectors are worst affected, to determine needs for a recovery phase, and to identify the silver linings – ways of working that we’ve been forced to adopt in the pandemic that we can retain as good practice when we’re past the crisis. Why should PraxisAuril members take any notice of these reports and the conclusions they reach? 

1) It’s all about you.  

Reports and reviews present a narrative of how KE is being affected – for better or worse – to funders and policy makers; it’s their evidence base for decision making.     

The point of these reports isn’t really to tell you what you’re doing, although it may be interesting and reassuring to hear how other KE teams are coping through the crisis (which was one of the objectives for our December event). It’s to tell sector funders, such as UKRI who commissioned a survey of Innovate UK grant holders, what is happening on both the demand and supply side of research and innovation. It’s too early to tell what the full impact of the economic downturn will be on business-university collaboration, but demand-side analysis of how businesses have reacted immediately and how they think they’ll ‘come back’ starts to manage expectations. The supply-side analysis – particularly the work done by Tomas Coates Ulrichsen at the new Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation (UCI) – can check findings about demand by comparing with university-side data and also build evidence about new ways of working and areas of demand. This will be important when it comes to looking at baseline sector data, the annual HEBCI return, which may well not continue its upward trajectory in 2019-20 or 2020-21. Notably, Tomas’s work has revealed differences among industry sector demand and KEF clusters which combine to make some universities more resilient to the pandemic than others.  

2) They tell us about changing KE priorities and dynamics. 

2020-21 was always going to be something of a pivotal year for KE because of the roll-out of the Knowledge Exchange Framework with its metrics-based exercise and the principle-based Concordat. There were already a number of signs that KE was changing – more university collaboration via the CCF projects, more investigation of non-traditional KE audiences such as the cultural sector, more emphasis on the local or civic role – but Covid-19 has really shone a light on the value of knowledge exchange and how universities can step in and up to support local communities and struggling business and also keep innovation going.   

Many PrA members reported being busier than ever during the pandemic and continue to be so. This isn’t just because some KE staff have been involved in institutional pandemic response management, but because businesses in crisis have turned to them for support and advice. During the pandemic, headlines about university research and innovation were tightly focused on the vaccine, understandably. As we come out of the pandemic into a recovery phase, perhaps the role of KE teams in business recovery will also make the news and help to change the stereotype of ‘lone scholar’ or ‘ivory tower’ into one of collaborative partner and community-focused institution. It’s not hard to find examples of universities playing their part in recovery and renewal: from Kent to Keele, Manchester Met to UCL, universities are open for business and keen to use their KE skills to start, sustain and up-skill businesses of all shapes, sizes and sectors.  

3) Building KE back better. 

Amidst all the gloom there have been some silver linings. Many universities reported a positive impact from the enforced move to virtual working, affecting KE staff just as much as their business partners – putting everyone in the same boat in this respect. The online way of working, and the speed at which we’ve all had to adapt to it, in domestic settings mostly possibly with added children and pets, has had a strangely levelling effect. Perhaps this is why respondents reported, in UCI’s report, that contract negotiations were easier online. New opportunities have been created as geographic boundaries have been eliminated by our digital meeting places, and organisations that may have lagged behind in digital tech have been forced to get on board – small changes like accepting e-signatures having a positive effect on timescales. At the other end of the scale, we have UCL’s e-licencing platform – introduced in direct response to the pandemic – with potential for being used in other contexts and dramatically reducing time to market and impact. Other collaborations initiated pre-pandemic with a particular goal in mind may find they have a renewed focus now there’s a greater need to pull together and build back; I’m thinking of the BIG South London project as one example of this, but the new National Centre for Academic Collaboration also falls into this category as it starts new conversations about KE and who it's for.  

To some extent, PrA members can stay focused on the day-to-day – helping research to have impact, supporting external organisations to access skills and innovation, building institutional KE capacity, and increasing understanding of what KE is and who it’s for. But in other respects, the pandemic has changed everything, and we should use these reviews and reports to inform the next phase where we want KE to continue to play a central role in economic and social renewal, with better understanding of demand and supply. What PrA and its members need to do now is supplement data with narrative and continue to tell our stories of learning from lockdown.  
 

References:  

Policy Evidence Unit for University Commercialisation and Innovation and NCUB ‘Innovating during a crisis’ report https://www.ncub.co.uk/latest-news/nearly-90-of-universities-had-to-delay-new-innovation-driven-projects-in-lockdown-according-to-survey-of-uk-universities  

ERC SME report – https://www.enterpriseresearch.ac.uk/covid-hammers-uk-firms-but-sparks-digital-pivot-for-some/  

Innovation Caucus review of Innovate UK grant holders (Wave 2) https://innovationcaucus.co.uk/2021/01/14/wave-2-report-assessing-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-innovate-uk-award-holders/  

Catapults report from the Select Committee inquiry – more on the brokerage / collaboration angle for innovation - https://committees.parliament.uk/work/804/the-contribution-of-innovation-catapults-to-delivering-the-rd-roadmap/  

NCACE launch – new participatory audiences and models for KE - https://www.ncace.ac.uk/