At the turn of the century, some disused coalfields in northern England were an ugly symbol of the UK’s industrial past. But today, where slagheaps once stood at Orgreave in South Yorkshire sits a thriving collaboration between university academics and leading companies on high tech manufacturing.
The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, founded in 2001 by Sheffield university and US aerospace company Boeing with government and EU funding, pursues world leading research into manufacturing that is of practical use to industry. Smart ideas are turned into commercial products, and the centre continues to expand: it recently opened a new site in Lancashire that is focused on aerospace manufacturing and clean energy technologies, among other things.
The government now wants to use a similar partnership approach between universities and industry in three “innovation accelerators” in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow city region.
Ministers hope these pilot projects, backed by £100mn of state funding over three years, will be important contributors to their efforts to “level up” left behind areas and narrow UK regional inequalities by improving productivity outside the South East.
They also see the initiative as part of the drive to increase public investment in research and development beyond the so-called “golden triangle” of Oxford, Cambridge and London.
People involved in setting up the accelerators regard them as an opportunity for “proof of concept”: the chance to forge closer links between higher education and industry, and to tap more of the UK’s public R&D investment.
The accelerators are meant to be drivers of innovation and economic growth, capitalising on existing clusters of businesses in their areas that have cutting edge expertise. Greater Manchester’s focus will include health and textiles, the West Midlands will concentrate on automotive and medical diagnostics, while Glasgow will look at photonics. All will be involved in advanced manufacturing.
Professor Richard Jones of Manchester university, who helped establish the AMRC and is now closely involved in setting up the Greater Manchester innovation accelerator, said: “The goal really is about productivity and increasing the productivity of the whole of the Greater Manchester conurbation, and indeed beyond that.”
Jones has long argued that a “highly imbalanced” approach to public R&D investment has led to a vicious circle that reinforces regional productivity inequalities.
Professor Richard Jones has long argued for a more balanced approach to public R&D investment © Jon Super/FT
A 2020 paper by the think-tank Nesta, co-authored by Jones, found industry had nevertheless been investing significantly in R&D in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, despite a comparative lack of state funding, and suggested the government take note.
Ministers appear to have taken some of these arguments on board. The government’s levelling up white paper highlighted how 54 per cent of gross R&D spending was focused on London, the South East and East of England.
The document, published in February, promised to increase public R&D investment outside the golden triangle by at least a third by 2025.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which leads on the innovation accelerators, has pledged to focus more than half its R&D spending outside the greater South East on them over the next three years.
The government’s broader goals include increasing R&D spending from 1.7 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, although that would still fall short of the current OECD average of 2.7 per cent.
Ben Johnson, head of research and innovation development at Strathclyde university, which is part the Glasgow innovation accelerator, said government policy was focused on connecting world class research to industry, and the AMRC was a “particularly compelling example”.
“Industrial research centres work because they are a vehicle for driving up business spending on R&D,” he added. “Industry wants to work with the best — so the connection through to excellent research is very important, as are the talent, skills and leadership of the people involved.”