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Government R&D funding fails to maximise ‘catapult’ potential

Barriers in the UK’s research and development funding system mean technology and innovation centres, also known as catapults, are prevented from maximising their potential economic impact

The UK government is unlikely to reach its current research and development (R&D) spending target without increasing the funding available to the country’s technology and innovation centres, found the House of Lords Science and Technology subcommittee.

Known as “catapults”, these not-for-profit, independent technology and innovation centres are designed to connect businesses with the UK’s research and academic communities with the aim of turning innovative ideas into commercial products.

According to a report published 5 February 2021 by the subcommittee, the government’s current approach “lacks a detailed plan for delivering its R&D ambitions”. which – in tandem with a lack of effective funding – means it is “unlikely” the government will attract enough private investment to reach its target of 2.4% of GDP spending on R&D by 2027.

The report claimed that catapults were well-placed to contribute to the government’s “levelling-up” agenda and its R&D strategy, and that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is currently undertaking a review of how catapults can strengthen R&D capacity and improve productivity. The review is due early 2021.

It also noted while catapults are currently funded via a “thirds model” – whereby the government (through Innovate UK), industry partners and collaborative R&D funds (which are bid for by consortia involving the catapults) each provide a third of the money – caps placed on the amount of collaborative funding they receive, as well as their inability to apply for Research Councils’ funding, limit the amount of investment the actually available to them.

“The funding available for innovation in the UK does not appear to be commensurate with the government’s ambitions, as set out in the R&D Roadmap. Rules governing funding for innovation create barriers to collaboration between for Catapults and universities, and can deter industrial partners,” it said.

“First, the cap on collaborative R&D funding for public sector bodies inhibits collaboration between catapults and universities. Leveraged funding requirements place too much risk on industry in transformative R&D projects. Finally, lack of access to Research Council funding puts catapults at a disadvantage compared to universities.”

To deal with the issue, the committee recommends that the government, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and Innovate UK create a clear plan for how public sector resources and private investment can be made to match the Roadmap’s scale of ambition, and that UKRI allows catapults to bid for Research Council funds where there are clear advantages in terms of both research and innovation.

It further recommended that Innovate UK be more flexible in how much public sector bodies receive from collaborative R&D funds, which are currently capped at 30% and must be shared between all bodies involved.

“The UK’s innovation system has all the necessary components to be successful, but it lacks the necessary scale and collaboration to fully realise economic benefits for the UK,” said committee chair Narendra Patel.

“The Catapult Network is an important national asset which has the potential to drive further innovation. The catapults could have a much larger impact if their performance was not held back.

“To maximise the impact and potential of catapults, collaboration should be strengthened with academics and industry. The government should broaden access to funds and prioritise scaling up the network catapults. Without urgent action to attract more private investment, the government is unlikely to meets its R&D spending targets.”

The committee also claimed that catapults have the potential to contribute to regional development and support the government’s levelling-up agenda. However, better coordination is necessary to unlock this potential.

According to science, research and innovation minister Amanda Solloway, who is quoted in the report: “Catapults are national assets established to have a national remit and capability. They do not have specific objectives to support levelling up.

“However, their national presence covers over 40 locations across the UK, and there are many examples of catapults creating local clusters of innovation activity.”

The Catapult Network, which represents nine tech and innovation centres across 40 locations, further noted that UKRI’s Strength in Places Fund – which aims to drive economic growth in specific areas of the UK – is “geographically ring-fenced”, preventing “catapults from investing in regions where they do not presently work”.

In its recommendations, the subcommittee said that BEIS and UKRI should “develop a more strategic approach across policies for innovation and regional development – such as broadening access to the Strength in Places Fund”.

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