Inspiring tomorrow’s engineers

Following her appearance at our ‘Engineering engineering’ event in July, we were keen to get Dr Hillary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK, to share her views on the power of outreach.

Hillary Leevers
Hillary Leevers: “It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning.”

It’s our ambition at EngineeringUK to inform and inspire young people and grow the number and diversity of tomorrow’s engineers to meet the needs of the UK now and in the future.

And we’re very clear that achieving this ambition requires the concerted, collective effort of organisations and individuals with a shared interest in ensuring that all young people can make an informed choice about whether to pursue an engineering career.

Our analysis of the annual Engineering Brand Monitor shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession positively and to consider a career in engineering. Furthermore, young people attending a STEM careers activity in the past 12 months were over 3 times more likely to consider a career in engineering than those who had not.

Yet, even pre-pandemic, only about a quarter of 11- to 19-year-olds surveyed reported having attended such an activity and we know that careers experiences have been limited over the pandemic.

Worryingly, nearly half of young people surveyed said they know little or almost nothing about what engineers do and many of them see engineering as complicated and difficult as well as dirty. Beyond that, while key influencers of young people hold positive views about engineering, fewer than half of STEM secondary school teachers and under a third of parents are confident in giving engineering careers advice.

There is therefore a need to work more effectively to ensure that all young people, and their influencers, have a good understanding of the breadth and value of modern engineering and how to get into it. Outreach has an important role to play in this, but we must ensure that it works for the digitally engaged young people of today, especially those from groups that are under-represented in the engineering workforce.

It’s vital we take an open and experimental approach to developing outreach, testing content and delivery with target audiences, and, ideally, involving them in the planning. 

Taking an evidence-based approach to outreach includes identifying key messages that resonate with young people. As an example, our surveys have shown for many years that ‘having an impact’ and ‘being valued’ are important to young people when deciding upon a career, research last summer also found that the pandemic had made job security and availability more important to them

STEM outreach should therefore convey the wide-ranging societal contributions that engineers make and the certainty of future engineering workforce needs, for example, supported by the government’s investments in infrastructure and for net zero

With 100s of organisations delivering STEM engagement, we must work together to improve our approach to designing, delivering, and evaluating activities, as well as sharing our learnings and coordinating our work with one other.

That’s why EngineeringUK is proud to have been invited to deliver the Tomorrow’s Engineers Code which gathered 140 signatories (including HEIs) in its first 9 months, all pledging to work together to increase the collective impact of our engineering-inspiration activities and ultimately the number and diversity of young people choosing engineering. 

STEM outreach efforts must focus on measuring and increasing the impact of activity as well as its reach. As a community, we must cultivate a greater understanding of how engagement activities can affect positive change through robust research and a shared evidence base. 

There are of course difficulties in evaluating the impact of outreach activities targeted at 11–14-year-olds on, for example, graduate entries. As an example, The Big Bang Fair supported by hundreds of organisations and orchestrated by EngineeringUK and which by 2019 welcomed 80,000 visitors, would need up to 10 years to see impacts on graduate entries. Nevertheless, our in-house and independent evaluations have shown that the Fair helps to inspire young people into engineering and provides them with information on how to get there. This evaluation also identifies how we can improve so we can iterate year on year and share our learnings. 

STEM outreach works within a much wider eco-system that impacts on a young person’s choices. So, while we know that knowledge of engineering is a limiting factor, it is one of many, including opportunities to progress in key subjects, specialist teachers, confidence and so on. It could be that we make progress in one area – knowledge or appeal of engineering – but that other elements, such as supply of specialist teachers, limit progression.

We’ve developed and published an impact framework to help describe this system, and are using it to help us articulate the changes we are trying to achieve and evaluate against them – and we are sharing it in the hope that it helps other organisations do the same. 

It’s fair to say that the engineering community needs to work harder than ever to ensure that engineering is accessible to this generation of young people – for their own life chances and so that we have a diverse and insightful workforce that we need to innovate, improve societal and economic resilience and environmental sustainability.

While STEM outreach is only one part of the system that will deliver this, I am convinced that the renewed community emphasis on working together to deliver impact alongside reach will achieve the results we seek.

‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation’ Webcast Summary

Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council, has published a new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline. The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members.

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: A Provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.

During the ‘Engineering Engineering: A Provocation‘ webcast, each topic was addressed by leading experts on the issue, chaired by outgoing EPC President Prof Colin Turner. These included:

• Elizabeth Donnelly, Chief Executive, Women’s Engineering Society

• Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive, Engineering UK

• Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager, The Science Media Centre

• Prof Mike Sutcliffe, Deputy Dean, TEDI-London, and EPC President-Elect.

In particular, the event aimed to examine four themes: the role of outreach in promoting engineering, how we might attract more women into engineering, the public perception of engineering and the distinction between design engineering and engineering science.


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 deadline for the call for contributions is November 28th.

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.”

Prof Helen Atkinson, former EPC President, awarded a Damehood

Dame Professor Helen Atkinson CBE FREng, PVC of Cranfield University and President of the EPC 2011-2013

We are delighted and proud that Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, President of the Engineering Professors’ Council 2011-13, has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021.

Cranfield University’s Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng has been made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2021 for services to engineering and education.

The full citation issued by Buckingham Palace states:

“Helen Atkinson is one of the UK’s foremost engineering leaders. She was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Cranfield University in 2017, with responsibility for the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing. She has made a tremendous impact in this role, cultivating key strategic partnerships with major industrial companies.

“She has been a committed Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering since 2007, serving variously as Vice President, Trustee and Chair of its Education and Skills Committee between 2012 and 2017. Most recently, she has made a vital impact through chairing the oversight group for the Academy’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign to encourage more young people into engineering.

“She has had roles with government Foresight Panels, HEFCE, EPSRC, IET, National Council for Universities and Business, and the Strategic Facilities Advisory Board of the Royce Institute. She is a leading role model and advocate for women in STEM. She was the first woman President of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in its 50-year history.”

Helen says: “I was utterly surprised and delighted when I received the news. This is a huge honour. For someone from my background, with both parents leaving school at 16 and as the first in my family to go to university, this is a most amazing thing. 

I really want to acknowledge the huge role the Engineering Professors’ Council has played in my career. I started out as an academic at Sheffield City Polytechnic as then was (now Sheffield Hallam) and then at Sheffield University. One of the professors there accidentally left a piece of paper by the photocopier about the Engineering Professors’ Council and I remember thinking ‘That looks interesting’.

I got involved in the Committee [now called the Board] when I was a Professor in the Engineering Department at Leicester University. I was really struck by the fact that even though the Department had strong demand for its undergraduate places, the Head of Department said ‘There is no money to buy the equipment for teaching’. I took a proposal to the EPC Committee to set up a piece of work to investigate, dispassionately and objectively, the real cost of teaching engineering students and teaching them well. This is, of course, a complex question. We drew together a working group and commissioned some consultants to help us to understand the way university finance models were operating. The Engineering Technology Board (as then was) helped with the costs. A number of universities agreed to be case studies for the investigation, across a range of types of institution. I chaired the working group and am immensely grateful for the wonderful and wise support I had from EPC colleagues.

In terms of my own development, this was the first time I had really had an opportunity to get my head round the way university finances worked and the different models universities used to flow through funds received from HEFCE to departments. Although the way university finance works has moved on, this experience has stood me in incredibly good stead now I am a Pro-Vice Chancellor.

We produced a careful and balanced report which I know was drawn on by HEFCE to support its consideration around the funds for Engineering teaching during that period. As Chair of the Working Group I was very determined we should take a national view representing all types if institution. The thinking I developed then flowed into my Presidency of the EPC a few years later.

I was very surprised to be encouraged to stand for election as President of the EPC. I was even more surprised when Fiona Martland [the EPC Executive Director at the time] stood up to say at the AGM that I was the first woman President in the 50-year history of the EPC and its forerunner bodies.

What I knew was that the EPC was such a good body to be part of – it draws together academics right across the sector – all of whom have a passion for encouraging the next generation of engineers.  

During my period as president we worked in conjunction with other groups to ensure the impact of UK Border Agency changes on engineering in HE was fully highlighted – engineering departments were second only to business and administration in their recruitment of overseas students, particularly for MSc courses, bringing around £750 million a year at that time into the economy. In addition, we ensured that the voice of HE engineering was heard in the school curriculum reforms led by the DfE (e.g. with Maths A-levels).

A key theme of my presidency was directing attention to the needs of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at a time of considerable turbulence for funding in England and with the Scottish independence debate. In addition, the EPC was cited 11 times in a House of Lords Enquiry Report into STEM in HE. Many of these citations were associated with a national project on the employment of engineering graduates which I instigated and led in collaboration with four other universities. This work originated because I wanted to understand why, when the nation was saying there was a shortage, some engineering graduates were unemployed six months after graduation. My involvement in that work really helped me to put myself in the shoes of students applying for engineering jobs and the whole careers landscape.

The experience I gained through my involvement with the EPC provided a strong foundation for my chairing of the Royal Academy of Engineering Standing Committee on Education and Training for five years and now in chairing the multi-million pound Royal Academy of Engineering ‘This is Engineering’ social media campaign to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career.

We have now had over fifty million views of the videos (see the ‘This is Engineering’ YouTube Channel) and with more or less equal numbers of girls and boys. I know a number of university engineering departments are contributing to the costs of that campaign. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation. It is in all our interests to ensure engineering is seen as a vibrant, exciting career and one where you really can change the world.” 

The EPC is immensely proud of Helen and we congratulate her wholeheartedly.


We would also like to publicly congratulate another esteemed EPC member, Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Director at the Centre for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Girton College, who has received an OBE for services to the COVID-19 Response.

Dr Fitzgerald was called upon in Spring 2020 to help with the SAGE Environmental Modelling Group. He co-authored the CIBSE Emerging from Lockdown guidance, which included advice on ventilation in buildings.

He is also serving on a range of other government bodies as part of the response to COVID-19, such as the DCMS Venues Steering Group, the Science Board to the Events Research Programme (which included the 2021 events at the Circus Nightclub in Liverpool and FA Cup Final), and the Aerosol Generating Procedures panel.

Engineering Engineering: a provocation

A recording of this event is now available to view at Recent events (epc.ac.uk). A new paper which seeks to challenge assumptions and practice around Engineering higher education and the talent pipeline was presented by Prof Kel Fidler CEng HonFIET FREng, former Vice Chancellor of Northumbria University and former Chair of the Engineering Council.

The EPC is grateful to him for inviting us to share his paper with our members in advance of the webinar we will be hosting on Tuesday 6th July 2021 which will follow up on some of the issues he raises with Prof Fidler himself and a panel of experts. (Click to attend.)

The paper itself, titled Engineering Engineering: a provocation, offers Kel’s personal perspective and it does not represent the views of the EPC. Some of our members may agree with it wholeheartedly. Others may want to take issue with his findings and recommendations – but no one can reasonably deny that these are discussions worth having.

Few can boast so rare a pedigree of accomplishments in Engineering higher education in the UK as Prof Fidler. And, having scaled the heights, there are few people better placed to take an overview of whether we’re doing well enough at what really matters.

As his polemical paper report makes clear, all is not roses in the garden of Engineering. We have the interlinked challenges of too little diversity among engineers and too few engineers to meet the social, environmental and economic needs of the future.

Some of our best efforts to resolve these challenges have not yet created the change we want to see, and so it is right to reflect on what more – or what else – we might do.

As anyone who knows him would expect, Kel has not held back in this ‘provocation’. Some people may disagree with his diagnosis of the problems and many will no doubt disagree with some of his proposed solutions, but that, surely, is the point of a provocation?

As the voice of Engineering academics, the EPC shall hold its peace for the time being, but we welcome a no-holds-barred debate about what we can do better and, as consensus emerges, we will do our best to support and disseminate positive change. Kel’s contribution is intended to get the stone rolling down the mountain and, for that, we are grateful to him and we are delighted to encourage the ongoing discussion.


Please feel free to comment below or in the Engineering Academics Network LinkedIn group.

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. A recording of the event is available at Recent events (epc.ac.uk).

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. A recording of the event is available at Recent events (epc.ac.uk). 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.”

Funding research for a better world

The EPC was honoured to welcome former Universities Minister the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore to delivered a speech as part of our 2021/22 Annual Congress on the theme of ‘A Better World’. This is the text of his speech.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today.

I feel honoured, yet at the same time daunted, that as a historian, you have given me this platform of addressing this annual congress of Engineering Professors.

I must confess it is that same mixed feeling of guilt and shame, call it imposter syndrome if you like, that one feels as a Minister, speaking to any assembled gathering of experts in their field, who know far more than I could ever hope to know about both your respective discipline and its research, than I could even possibly conceive.

Yet while I may call from the arts and humanities side of the tracks, I have a long-held admiration for engineering, having broken an equally long-standing family tradition of becoming an engineer. My grandfather began his career at an early age at Rolls Royce in Filton, while my father followed him into British Aerospace, working on Concorde, before branching out into medical physics and obtaining his Physics doctorate in doppler ultrasound, establishing his own medical technology company and winning the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal back in 2000. 

As a result, I’ve witnessed first-hand the trials, frustrations, wrong turnings of a family small business working in R&D over the past four decades. I’ve seen and recognised the barriers that prevent research projects from ever getting off the ground. 

Above all, I grew up recognising that engineering at its essence, was about problem solving— not merely the theoretical or the practical, but also the day to day reality of making things— whether a product or business— work. 

Today, you have set me an enigma of a problem to solve. How can we ‘research for a better world’?

A better world is one which we all of course always strive for, indeed it has always been the goal of governments and societies past, but perhaps in my lifetime, the need for a better world brings with it more meaning and urgency than I can remember. 

It is the nature of the human condition to seek hope in despair, to look forwards and not backwards, and to find meaning out of times that can seem incomprehensible. 

So we find ourselves, as previous generations have done, seeking to ‘rebuild’, or in that phrase du jour, ‘build back better’. 

In the wake of the pandemic, post-Covid recovery the almost the sole focus of governments, a mission that one could have scarcely understood 18 months ago when I was still Research Minister. 

The importance of research has been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been our guiding light out of the tunnel.

Of course, the world still turns, hospitals and schools need to function, welfare needs to be provided, but while the pandemic continues to rage across the globe, we have yet to experience the aftershocks that it has caused, from economic recession and a GDP fall that has not been matched for centuries, a fall in educational achievement to a falling birth rate and its impact upon future society. These are problems that not just current politicians will have to grapple with, but I suspect future generations also, not least when we also will have to address the historic levels of debt and the yawning deficit that once again will hang around our economies, hindering their effectiveness to deliver economic growth and future prosperity. 

In this new age, we need to recognise that priorities will change, as competing demands are made on more limited resources. Already we are witnessing calls for increased spending, at a time when a pathway to fiscal constraint will also need to be set. And with any competing demand, choices will need to be made. How those choices are chosen will be determined by the value, both in terms of economically but also to society, placed upon them by policy makers and governments.

The importance of research to our economy and society should have been proven in spades by the pandemic. It has been research that has proved to be our guiding light out of the tunnel. Vaccination programmes, antivirals and medication to tackle COVID has demonstrated how research not only transforms lives, it saves lives too. If there is one positive to be drawn from this dark past year, it has been the improved recognition that R&D matters.

Yet equally, scepticism to scientific advice, combined with anxieties over lockdown, has highlighted that the research community must always work to demonstrate impact, to take wider society and the general public with them. Narratives matter. How they are woven, out of the threads of people’s hopes and fears, facts and figures, stories and examples, determines how successful campaigns can be. And the need for more research will always be one long campaign that never ends. 

Even before the pandemic broke, the government allied its own narrative of a post-Brexit Britain to the future facing, change making potential that R&D investment can bring, with its call to fashion the UK as a ‘global science superpower’. The commitment to spend 2.4% GDP by 2027 on R&D was of course made in the Industrial Strategy White Paper back in 2017, but the recent government commitment to double public R&D spending to £22billion by 2024/25 has certainly given the commitment a boost. I have spend considerable time already analysing how we might achieve the ‘Road to 2.4%’ in a 30,000 word lecture series I gave in 2019, and do not wish to repeat myself, though for me perhaps the most pressing fact I can relate today is that on 13 July, 2027 is just 2,000 days away. 

This year’s Innovation strategy and the investment made in the Spending Review in R&D will be a critical indicator of whether we will reach the 2.4% target. Four years have so far past, with R&D activity having only risen around 0.2% of GDP in this period. With five and a half years to go, we cannot afford to continue on the same trajectory. 

I have come to doubt whether 2.4% will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming.

Now is the time to double down, especially when we recognise where the rest of the world is heading. Even I have come to doubt whether 2.4%, the OECD average at the present time, will be sufficient for the scale of change that is coming in the 2020s and into the 2030s. Innovation rich countries are pulling ahead even further. The US and China are heading towards 3% GDP, Japan spends 3.2%, Germany is planning to reach 4%, South Korea is already at 4.5% and Israel higher still at 4.9%. Even the OECD average that was the benchmark for the 2.4% strategy has risen to probably over 2.6%. 

The pandemic and other nations response to how to build economic recovery will only lead to a widening gap in R&D performance if we do not step up. “In order to win the 21st century economy” President Biden has stated, “America must get back to investing in the researchers, laboratories, and universities across our nation”. He is calling on Congress to make an $180 billion investment that will both advance U.S. leadership in critical technologies and upgrade America’s research infrastructure” and “establish the United States as a leader in climate science, innovation, and R&D”. Similar commitments marrying increased investment in innovation and technology with clean growth and combatting climate change are being made across Germany, South Korea, China and Singapore.  

Nine years ago, I wrote a chapter in a book making the case that innovation should be placed at the centre of ‘Britannia Unchained’. The success of ‘Global Britain’ now depends on matching countries that have transformed their economies towards innovation and research. I would now go further— and suggest for the Innovation Strategy that a definite timetable is set for 3%, and beyond to 3.5%. To fail to achieve this over the next two decades will be setting ourselves up to fail. 

Yet with any strategy, risk of simply being left behind as the world transitions its economies towards more modern, technological approaches in which R&D lies the centre, is not the only narrative that must be woven. At every stage, the threat of inaction or slow progress needs to be balanced with the positive, transformational, human message of why investment in R&D is so important, if the taxpayer and general public are to understand the importance of research. Important not only for companies who wish to remain agile and market dominant, important not only for new job creation, but why R&D is important to someone living in Hartlepool or Doncaster. It’s a question that I have continued to grapple with outside of government having agreed to co-chair the Higher Education Commission’s inquiry into levelling up research funding. For myself, I have long believed that investment in translational research conducted in places such as our catapult networks such as the Advanced Manufacturing Catapult is where change could be delivered: with a budget of under £250million a year, this is less than a tenth of what Germany spends on its Fraunhofer institutes. By combining additional investment with a commitment to work lower down the supply chain, and to ally skills programmes with new catapult centres, the impact that research can have creating new jobs at every skill level could be felt. 

People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential.

Low level productivity and a skills deficit remain one of the greatest barriers to ‘levelling up’ across the country, which cannot be achieved by investment in capital alone. People are, quite obviously, the life blood of R&D. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest, unless you have the capacity and capability to perform research, and to adapt and translate its potential. And I’m not just talking about the 200,000 new jobs that will need to be created through the expansion of R&D activity, but the wider ecosystem and supply chain of jobs that are created through the application of new technologies or new materials.  

We cannot divorce the activities of researchers from the wider skills pipeline that needs to be created if we are to meet 2.4%: skills training offers the best possible means to increase productivity, yet our SMEs and companies have some of the lowest in work training rates in the OECD. 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. Allied to investing in research— and with it our high skill level researchers— is the imperative that we invest in skills across the supply chain if diffusion, adaption and development is to succeed. It’s why I have decided to establish the Lifelong Education Commission with Res Publica, to highlight how training and lifelong skills investment is just as essential for economic transformation as R&D, indeed one cannot happen effectively without the other. 

If we are to research for the better, ‘global science superpower’ narrative must be aligned with the ‘levelling up’ agenda if both are to truly succeed: the challenge for us all is joining both together in a way that demonstrates real change to the lives of people or SMEs who do not view R&D as something that either affects them, or they need to do. 

Engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier.

Of course, this is where engineering has a rich heritage of translating complex and unfathomable ideas into reality. From the railways to the car, the history of flight, engineers have managed to transform individual lives by demonstrating how technological change can make people’s lives easier. The historian in me still believes we have much to learn from the role of engineering in the history of innovation, and what lessons we can still learn for today on how to achieve large scale systems changes needed for society. 

The challenge we face, however, is how we make change just as convenient and comfortable as possible, when in areas such as climate change and the emissions reductions needed to achieve net zero, require transformations away from current technologies and behaviours that seem daunting.

But it can be done. Indeed it must be done. R&D into new, yet to exist technologies will have a critical role to play in achieving net zero, a target which I signed into law back in 2019. Yet equally if not more important is the impact that research into how we can better use existing technologies to achieve net zero. If 2021 will be dominated by any agreement reached at COP26 in Glasgow in November, it will have to be research that steps up to deliver on the greener future that will be required. 

The issue for the UK’s R&D strategy comes when we move away from the clearly defined narratives of levelling up, building back better, or a green recovery. Mission orientated approaches towards specific goals and outcomes are helpful in supporting these narratives, shaping them and the financial investment needed to deliver upon them. But UK research has also led and shaped a better future by its discovery led nature, based on excellence. This cannot be left aside in the desire to create more challenge-based funding schemes. The creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency is a welcome one, but again this should not be viewed as an alternative to properly funding laboratory focused research across departments in our universities and research institutes, which will still be conducting perhaps 90% of existing R&D research. 

I make this point, for if we are to research for a better future, it is worth reminding that this does not always necessarily mean we need to resort to novelty. Existing funding mechanisms such as QR are perhaps the best means by which to get R&D investment flowing so that it has maximum impact. I’ve seen first-hand also how QR can be used as the mortar to bind various funding streams together, so that organically, research projects can then flourish and attract further private R&D in turn. Equally, funding opportunities such as the Research Partnership Investment Fund or the Higher Education Innovation Fund are working, though I believe with the publication of the Knowledge Exchange Framework, they can be now harnessed to better qualitative data. 

We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% … we just need to change the tyre.

One of the reasons I campaigned strongly also for association to Horizon Europe was along these same conservative principles, that we should seek to preserve and protect long cherished research partnerships that have been forged over many years. It is a philosophy perhaps best espoused by Michael Oakshott—  ‘to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible’. We need not reinvent the wheel to move faster towards 2.4% or 3% as I would suggest, we just need to change the tyre.

That said, I do believe that there is a case for fashioning a new compact for R&D between government, universities and our research institutes, one based not solely on increased investment, but on how that money is apportioned and how better research can be realised by engendering a better sense of trust within the system. 

Far too often, too many researchers in both university and industry and chasing too many pots of grant funding, the total amount of which will last but a year if lucky before another funding cycle needs to be initiated. An hour wasted on form-filling, on meetings to agree who will conduct the assessment, to meet the demands and conditions of the grant, is potentially an hour of research wasted. The government has rightly instigated a Bureaucracy Review into existing processes, but I wonder if everyone would not be better served by moving towards a model of research funding like Horizon Europe, that has a multi-financial framework, a fixed seven year research programme. 

For the government, such a single research fund might help to rationalise investments from discovery led research and ARIA at the apex, towards more translational and applied research at the base, with missions acting as funding streams. Setting a multi-annual budget would also allow for UKR&D activity to be more agile, to seize potential collaborative R&D activities with international partners, and to break free from the annual cycle of the R&D budget. And at the same time, a single research budget could be clearly communicable to the public and taxpayer, in the same way Horizon has been across Europe. 

Perhaps you may view this as just too ambitious, though we should recognise that, as the pandemic has demonstrated and Net Zero will need to demonstrate in spades if it is to succeed, the horizontal structures of government and society need to be as strong as the vertical,  to which a single budget commissioning research might be the answer. 

Stability

Underlying the purpose of a single budget, and a multi-annual framework aligned to an agreed settlement, is perhaps the most important principle we need for research: stability. You all know the value that stability brings, and the threat to research that instability endangers. Grants are paused, revenue streams dry up, collaborations once possible move elsewhere. More than money can ever buy, stability lies at the heart of a successful R&D ecosystem. That is why it is so important that when considering any policy decision, and its potential to disrupt or delay, analysis is given to how this might impact upon research capacity. 

To this I would like to add two further priorities for delivering better research: security and sustainability. 

Security

Security of course has more than one connotation, both facing inwards and outwards. For the research community, research cannot be conducted effectively without the frameworks and agreements that underpin collaboration. The importance of intellectual property rights and other intangible assets is only growing, and if the UK is to maintain its leadership in these fields, we will need to seek out new means of securing new rights across digital domains and AI. Post-Brexit, we seriously need to address issues around UK IP rights and our relationship with the European Patent Office, but this should also point to a wider review of how the UK can lead on the debates around the future of copyright, trademarks and patents working with the World Intellectual Property Organisation. 

The security of research that has the potential to fall into the hands of hostile agents needs to be guarded against too, which is why the creation of a new unit in BEIS to monitor threats to universities and research institutes is a welcome one. We should continue to seek collaborations across the globe, for research knows no boundaries, but this cannot come at the cost of compromising the value of research that has been funded by the taxpayer. Then there is the question of sovereignty when it comes to critical national infrastructure and assets. Debates around a UK GNSS system in space and UK independence will likely translate across to other new technologies in due course. Post-Brexit, there is a powerful narrative to be explored about how the UK, while working to strengthen its international collaboration in research, can at the same time increase and improve its independent manufacturing capacity in new technologies. 

But security in research, for any researcher, is also about their job. Putting food on the table, looking after their family, scientists and researchers are human after all, even if it seems at times that they perform superhuman tasks. Academic precarity for early career researchers was an area of policy I sought to focus on when a Minister, highlighting the consequences of fixed term contracts and non disclosure agreements that undermined staff and their welfare. Never mind the so-called ‘brain drain’ across the Atlantic, we continue to lose too many excellent researchers from our universities, some who never return to work in R&D again. This is an unacceptable loss of talent, and an unacceptable loss of taxpayer investment in human capital that has been wasted due to lack of foresight. It’s why one of the last announcements I made was that the government should construct a People Strategy for research, to plan effectively how to retain researchers and not lose them through a lack of secure job opportunities.  

Sustainability

To stability and security, I would also add sustainability. By that I don’t mean measuring sustainability by SDGs or in financial terms, though that is clearly important, but in sustaining the institutions through which R&D flows. 

To return to that same Oakshottean principle, we should seek to conserve that which has worked, to recognise and respect the value that our existing universities and research institutes bring to Britain globally. This includes taking care not to threaten university R&D activity inadvertently. Ultimately, this would not happen if research costs were funded at full economic cost. To place research activity at the mercy of international student flows or any other cross-subsidisation seems a dangerous place, and perhaps ultimately unsustainable place, to be. 

Universities and their research have been so outstanding at delivering on international sustainable development goals, turning their focus on how to improve societies across the globe, that sometimes they seem to have neglected their own sustainability. By this I don’t mean their financial sustainability, but the sustainability of their public image. I have campaigned for universities to recognise their value as civic institutions, to become anchor institutions in the towns and cities from which they take their name, if they are to retain wider public support. 

There is so much untapped potential here, for universities to not only highlight their existing importance to their local and regional economies, but to consciously adopt new strategies of setting up walk in centres on local high streets, engaging seriously with future modular and course based provision, to demonstrate why they can be change makers locally as well as globally. Of course there is a wider role here for how all this is measured if it is to be managed, but the intent should come before the process. In an age of competing priorities, the more universities can do to expand their mission, the more likely they are to secure their future. As I have said previously, Red Wall universities can spearhead an educational and civic mission as impressive as the Red Brick universities had, if they are willing to look at how to do things differently, diversify and adapt. Sustainability can and should be local as much as global. 

Call it the Plan Triple S, if you like, but these three words: stability, security and sustainability should underpin any research strategy for a better future. Between them they blend, I believe, the vital importance of retaining and conserving what the UK already does so well, with the potential to achieve even more, building on our successes. 

For ultimately, if we want to research for a better world, we need better research. 

Thank you. 

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP 

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.