CALL FOR CONTRIBUTIONS: The Crucible Project – Advancing the Industry-Academia Agenda

During the course of the 2020 Annual Congress, Industry & Academia: Supercharging the Crucible, members explored the interface between industry and academia and some of the challenges to developing the relationship between industry and academia. This highlighted five areas of mutual interest:

  • Universities’ and businesses’ shared role in regional development
  • Collaborating with industry for teaching and learning
  • Knowledge exchange
  • Research
  • Graduate employability and recruitment

The EPC now wants to build on this by launching the Crucible Project, an initiative to help our members build better industry links by sharing experiences and developing resources for all EPC members to access. We are planning to hold an online Industry-Academia event, featuring a diverse range of case studies of innovative and engaging collaborations between academics and industry, on 16th February 2022 and to produce a toolkit (or a series of toolkits) which members can access from the EPC website.

EPC members are invited to submit case studies, in whatever form, on the above areas of interest. We would especially welcome case studies created collaboratively between industry and academia partners. If you would like to get involved, please register your interest here.

The panel (members of the EPC Research, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer (RIKT) Committee) will be in touch to discuss your submission shortly to enable work to proceed over the summer. The deadline for the call for contributions is September 30th.

Please also contact your Industrial Advisory Board or those within your university that deal with engineering industry collaboration and KTPs. 

Engineering Professors’ Council welcomes Professor Mike Sutcliffe as new President

Professor Mike Sutcliffe is the new President of the Engineering Professors’ Council, the representative organisation of UK engineering academics.

Prof Sutcliffe, who is Deputy Dean at TEDI-London, takes over from Prof Colin Turner, Interim Dean of Learning Enhancement at Ulster University, whose two-year term of office has come to an end.

Having chaired the EPC’s Engineering Education, Employability and Skills Committee, Prof Sutcliffe was elected as President-Elect in 2020 and has served a year as Vice President.

He was instrumental in leading much of the EPC’s influential work on degree apprenticeships, a topic he had already become expert in when helping to establish the initial Degree Apprenticeship Programme at Kingston University, where he served as Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Science, Engineering and Computing.

Prior to that he has also worked as Head of the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester, where he achieved global top 25 status in QS World Rankings and a top 3 position in the UK in REF 2014.

Professor Mike Sutcliffe commented:

“It’s a great privilege to take over the Presidency of the EPC, which is a unique voice for engineering academics in higher education, in the engineering sector, in government and beyond. It brings our community together not only to ensure we are heard, but also to share best practice and work together to improve engineering education.

“This is a vital time for our members who are facing up to difficult issues in higher education while standing on the frontline of economic, social and environmental challenges. Engineers are the problem-solvers and we shall be the keyworkers of the recovery. The EPC has big plans and will play our part.

“I would like to convey my profound thanks to Colin Turner for his service at President. He leaves the organisation stronger and more influential than ever and with a clear sense of purpose.”

Prof Turner said:

“It has been a huge honour to serve as the EPC’s President. We have achieved so much over the past two years under difficult circumstances, but there is always more to do. I’m delighted to leave the EPC in Mike’s capable hands and I look forward to serving as his deputy.”

Chi Onwurah MP Webinar Summary

In case you missed it, here is a short summary of Chi Onwurah MP’s speech from the EPC’s Congress 2021 webinar series.

Chi began her speech by recounting that she entered politics for the same reason she entered engineering – “to make the world work better for everyone.” She is also proud to be an MP, Shadow Minister for Digital Science & Technology and a Chartered Electrical engineer with over twenty years of experience. Her engineering degree has “taken [her] all over the world” and has helped her with policy decisions in Government, such as HS2 and Broadband deployment.

However, although she was proud to be an engineer, Chi spoke honestly about the difficulties she faced with her engineering professors. Having been taught “in an environment replete with racism and misogyny”, Chi was thankful that the “engineering departments of today are different.” Even so, she noted that many women engineering students “still report widespread bullying and harassment.”

One of Chi’s main topics was a discussion centred on the ethics of engineering. Speaking about her own personal experiences within the field of Communications Technology, she has seen it develop from “boring but useful” to “exciting but exploitative.” Engineering departments should be asking “what responsibility do engineers have?” when engineering is involved in ethical topics. There is too much of an “underlying assumption” that engineering is a “purely technical, objective” discipline, despite it taking place in a “political, regulatory and ethical framework.”

Drawing again on her own experiences, Chi has seen first-hand “the consequences of decades of oil extraction,” while working in Nigeria. She also paid tribute to the various engineering professional bodies and the importance of creating an “ethical framework and values to address the harm as well as the good [that] engineering does.”

Diversity and inclusion within engineering was another important topic of discussion. Chi recalled that when she entered Imperial College in 1984, “12% of Engineering students were women.” Shockingly, almost forty years later, the figure has reached 14%. At a rate of half a percentage point per decade, it would “take until 2741 to reach gender parity.” Speaking frankly, Chi noted that “Diversity is not an optional add-on. It is an economic imperative.” It is essential that we “[make] use of the talents of everyone” in order to “build a more prosperous economy.” We must also remember that low participation in engineering cannot be blamed on women and minorities. “The sector has to own the issue, the challenge and the solutions.” As part of this, the ‘Equity in STEM Education Report’ was launched last year by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Diversity and Inclusion in STEM (chaired by Chi). Although the report focused on schools, Chi felt that much of it could be applied to higher education.

Indeed, the Government must provide “more support and incentives for diversity and inclusion” as well as ensuring access to STEM education “for those currently excluded.” The COVID Schools Catch-up Plan could have been an opportunity for this, unfortunately the funding for it is “totally insufficient.” There is a major skills shortage in Engineering, and the age profile of engineers and technicians “means it’s getting worse.” In the future, Net Zero technology could be used to “drive the next generation of British exports.” Investment into “sustainable manufacturing methods and engineering” could be a crucial tool in developing “a new industrial economy whilst safe-guarding our planet.” This presents an opportunity “that will inspire and forge a new type of engineer.”

Chris Skidmore MP Webinar Summary

In case you missed it, here is a short summary of Chris Skidmore MP’s speech from the EPC’s Congress 2021 webinar series. To read the full text of the speech, please click here.

From an engineering family, Chris personally recognises that “engineering at its essence [is] about problem solving […] the day-to-day reality of making things […] work.” He was also keen to recognise that “the need for a better world” seems more urgent than ever, given current global issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat of climate change. Recognising the vital role of research in combatting the pandemic, he called it “our guiding light out of the tunnel.” Obvious examples of this research include vaccination programs and treatments for COVID-19.

However, although we have come a long way thanks to research, future generations are yet to feel the “aftershocks” of the pandemic, both economic and otherwise. As such, the “need for research will always be one long campaign that never ends.” Crucially, one of the main points of Chris’ talk was that the UK’s current goal to spend 2.4% of its GDP on R&D by 2027 – may not be enough. He believes that at least 3% is needed in order to keep pace with the rest of the world and the “scale of change that is coming” in the next few decades.

If the UK does not hasten its research spending, we will be facing a “widening gap in R&D” as many other major countries already spend a higher percentage of their GDP on research compared to the UK. Acknowledging the commitments of nations such as Germany and South Korea to invest in climate research, Chris called for a “definite timetable” for 3% – and later 3.5%.

One of the “greatest barriers” affecting the ‘levelling up’ of the UK, is a skills deficit and low levels of productivity. No matter how much capital is invested, people are “the lifeblood of R&D”, as they provide the means to produce research and “translate its potential.” The link between research and the skills network that must be created to facilitate its expansion cannot be ignored.

To do so would be a crucial misstep as “those that fail to invest in skills are the same who fail to invest in R&D, for they rely on short-term gains and not realising long-term opportunity.” The UK must invest in both its researchers and their research, and the idea of the UK as a ‘global science superpower’ “must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed.” It is because of this that Chris has established the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica.

Engineering has always played an important role of bringing to life the once impossible. Throughout history, engineers have been able to “transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.”

Such a concept is even more important today, given the growing challenges of climate change and the changes needed to achieve net zero. Perhaps we should remember that “we need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3%…we just need to change the tire.”

In the future, maintaining and strengthening the research partnerships the UK has joined will be highly important. Funding for research should be refined, perhaps using Horizon Europe as an example. Ambition will be needed “in spades” to meet the challenges of the future such as climate change and Net Zero – therefore this structure must be reviewed. Chris’ closing message was that “stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future.”

What’s going on with UK Research Funding?

The government has a stated goal of achieving 2.4% of the UK’s GDP to be spent annually on research and development (R&D) by 2027. This would be an increase of more than a third on today’s spending levels.

After reaching 2.4%, the aim is to achieve 3% by 2030. Even this, however, is no higher than the middle of the range for OECD countries. Among advanced, highly research-active countries like the UK, the comparison is even less favourable in terms of levels of investment.

In any case, the plans represent a big expansion in funding. The question is, where will this money come from? The government has never claimed it would all come from the public purse – and clearly not all of it will.

The Funding Breakdown

Most of the public spending on research used to come through two channels:

First, there’s UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), the super-agency forged in 2018 out of a merger of the research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. UKRI allocated £7.5 billion of pounds in grants last year.

Second, there was Horizon 2020 – a research collaboration consisting of the EU and non-EU countries (known as ‘associated countries’). Horizon 2020 was funded by contributions from EU member states, as well as association fees paid by associated countries such as Switzerland and Israel. As the name suggests, Horizon 2020 provided funding plans until last year only.

As you may have seen in the news recently, another funding agency – the brainchild of Dominic Cummings before he left Downing St – has been set up under the name of ‘ARIA’ (Advanced Research and Invention Agency). It is based on the American ‘ARPA’ (or ‘DARPA’), with a current budget of £800 million until 2024/25.

Since Horizon 2020 concluded, Horizon Europe is due to replace it. Now that the UK has left the EU, we must join Horizon Europe as an associated country – by paying association fees. Previously, the UK’s access to Horizon 2020 came as part of the package of benefits covered by our membership contribution to the EU. Some countries did rather better in Horizon 2020 grants compared to their relative contribution to the EU’s overall budget. The UK itself received 12.1% (more than €7 billion), while it contributed an average 11.4% of the total EU budget. After Germany, the UK was the second largest recipient of Horizon 2020 grants.

Though the exact cost is not yet public, joining Horizon Europe will likely cost the UK around £1Bn a year – and, given the UK’s past success as an exporter of research, it is likely to see a return of between 100% and 150% of that figure. That excludes any calculation of the “multiplier effect” that accompanies funding.

In other words, by buying into Horizon Europe, the UK government will be able to fund UK research indirectly and bring in more money than it invests at the same time. It will also help to foster international collaboration, which, many would argue, is now more important than ever in the wake of Brexit.

The question remains though – how will the Government pay for this?

The R&D Budget

Following an announcement on April 1st, we now know that the government will be funding the UK’s access to Horizon Europe. In this latest press release, £250 million has now been allocated for this purpose. Additionally, there was a promise that there would be no cuts to the existing UKRI budgets. This avoids the earlier £1 billion cut to UKRI’s budget that was feared if the government had not made this announcement. That still leaves potentially 75% of the funding for Horizon Europe (beyond the £250 million) which is now, according to the government’s announcement, set to come from “unallocated funds”. This sounds worryingly vague, but perhaps it is merely a reflection of the fact that the exact cost for Horizon Europe association isn’t known yet.

Also included in the April 1st press release was the bold statement that the government has now committed £14.9 billion in funding for research and development in 2021/22. It also highlights “a boost of more than £1.5 billion in 2020/21” which now means R&D spending is “at its highest level in four decades”. Of this £14.9 billion, the government has allocated £11.3bn for BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) according to Science Minister Amanda Solloway.

While this looks like a step in the right direction, it is still unclear where the rest of the £14.9 billion will come from. As Andy Westwood has pointed out, 2027 is both the year Horizon Europe runs until – and the year the government hopes to reach its 2.4% target. There is concern that the government may use its investment in Horizon as an opportunity to ‘double count’ its funding allocation. This may be done by counting the £1 billion allocation to Horizon as well as counting any funding from Horizon itself. If this is the case, then it may bring the overall total up to around £13.2 billion. Of course, this still leaves £1.7 billion that we’re struggling to trace.

It seems that we will have to wait and see where the rest of this funding comes from or goes to, perhaps all will become clearer as future budgets are announced. In the wake of this unprecedented increase in funding levels, UK research will hopefully benefit from ever-increasing support in the future.