Summer reading at the ready....

PraxisUnico's Policy Officer, Tamsin Mann, reviews recent releases and reports from Government affecting our sector.

Forget Richard & Judy’s top picks or the THE must-reads, the Government has kindly provided your summer reading list just in time for recess and thoughts of lazy, reading-filled, beach days.

July started bright and warm with the new Minister for Science & Innovation, Jo Johnson, setting out his stall. “Research, Innovate, Grow: the role of science in our long-term economic plan” outlines how British research and innovation will drive growth and ensure better living standards for the next generation to come. But it’s just a taster for heavier reading to come.

The eagerly awaited report by the RA Engineering’s Dowling Review team on university-business collaborations was published the next day. The report is readable and has some striking illustrations. Still, the last review of university-business relationships – by the Business, Innovation & Skills Select Committee all the way back in November 2014 – is quite fresh in the mind, so let’s put that in the reading pile to see how recommendations compare.

In the same week as Dowling reported, George Osborne unveiled his budget and the accompanying document ‘Fixing the Foundations’ aka the Productivity Plan. More targets, drivers and incentives for research organisations and business to consider (see Chapter 8) in order to bolster productivity. But the KEC sector is actually doing pretty well. The annual HE-BCI data sets were available in March, but HEFCE published its analysis of the data on July 16th. Overall income from working with businesses and other external organisations increased by over 10% to £3.9 billion in the 2013-14 academic year; even income from the elusive SME sector has increased in some categories. The Productivity Plan would like to see revenue from working with business and others rise to “£5 billion per annum by 2025”. On current HE-BCI evidence, that seems a rather modest target. Still, let’s read on.

Clearly new MPs were feeling somewhat at sea with the sheer volume of pronouncements made over the course of the Coalition government regarding science and innovation. “The volume of policy announcements can feel confusing and uncertain for those on the receiving end” said Nicola Blackwood, Chair of the newly appointed Commons Science & Technology Committee, as she announced an inquiry into the Science Budget. The Minister for Science & Innovation was quickly brought in for questioning. In response to Blackwood, Jo Johnson stated that recent publications built on from ‘Our Plan for Growth: Science & Innovation’ (December 2014, following the autumn budget) and confirmed that the latter “remains the strategy of the Department and the Government as a whole, and it informs all our work. That is a current overarching strategy framework within which we are working, and it remains operative.” Good to know and another one for the suitcase, just to refresh the memory.

Scrutinising policy is what Select Committees do of course and, not to be out-done, Ian Wright’s Business, Innovation & Skills Committee announced their inquiry into the Productivity Plan just before Parliament recessed. Both inquiries have terms of reference which you should read, and possibly respond to.

There’s still a little room in the suitcase though, which is just as well because BIS has sneaked out a blockbuster. “What is the relationship between public and private investment in R&D?” runs to 312 pages (including Annexes) and PrU’s skim-reading of the executive summary suggest it’s worth a closer look. The report was written in April 2015 but has only just been released to the general reader – we have to thank CaSE for recommending this particular read as it’s not on the BIS website (although I did stumble upon an earlier publication “Estimating the effect of UK direct public support for innovation” which could be useful). Nonetheless, one hopes that means that BIS’s conclusions and recommendations have been carefully reflected in July’s headline budgetary publications. The report uses and builds upon research commissioned by CaSE in 2014 ‘The economic significance of the UK science base’ – so maybe we should take that along too as a cross-reference.

By comparison, the Comprehensive Spending Review document is a mere pamphlet that you can slip in your hand luggage. “A country that lives within its means” addresses things from the top down (we’re fixing the roof now, not the foundations) and does not contain the word ‘science’. Or ‘ring-fence’. ‘Innovation’ is limited to public services. This is big picture stuff of course, but it feels slightly unsettling, as the devil really will be in the detail.

So, we have our reading list. The challenge is not just to work through each individual publication but to think about how they relate to each other, and how their conclusions and recommendations relate to our sector’s own concerns and priorities for future funding and operations – this is an exercise in comparative literature. HEFCE’s HE-BCI report may make you feel upbeat; BIS’s blockbuster presents economic truths that will have you nodding in agreement; the Dowling Review recommendations are balanced and well-informed – but still we approach November 25th thinking that there may not be a happy ending. To change metaphors; we have foundations, and we are paying attention to the roof, but no-one’s mentioned the state of the walls.

That summer reading list in full:


Many of the above documents will be available to download from PraxisUnico’s ‘resources’ section on its new website (to be launched in August). The aim is to create an information resource that collects government, public sector and occasional academic research papers relating to knowledge exchange and commercialisation, in a searchable online database. Everything is public source, and could be found via searching the web, but we think there is value in bringing these resources together.