What does the future hold for research and innovation in the UK?

The traditional way of funding and conducting research is being challenged like never before.

These are interesting, albeit turbulent, times for UK scientific researchers.

Brexit is a big unknown, and adds to the ongoing disruption of digital technologies and the fourth industrial revolution. The traditional way of funding and conducting research is being challenged like never before, in an increasingly competitive international landscape.

The good news is that the UK is proactively addressing the challenges by increasing the overall investment in research and innovation. At the same time, it’s rethinking and reshaping its approach to focus on business and industry partnerships, technology commercialisation, collaboration and knowledge exchange.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the new body launching in April and chaired by Sir Mark Walport, brings together the seven UK Research Councils, plus Innovate UK and Research England, with the goal of creating something stronger than the sum of its parts.

A programme to map the UK research and innovation (R&I) infrastructure is underway and set to deliver by early 2019. The aim is to make the landscape more visible and accessible to researchers and businesses. You might have imagined that a ‘map’ was already in place but it’s not an easy task. Even agreeing a definition of R&I infrastructure poses a challenge, as research includes the humanities, meaning archives and libraries are part of the infrastructure, in addition to test labs and rigs, which are more clearly thought of in this context from an industry point of view.

Interestingly, the fourth industrial revolution requires a much deeper and more intimate relationship between humans, machines and data, increasing the role that humanistic disciplines need to play in the workplace. Defining and teaching ethics for and to artificial intelligences will require philosophers, as well as data scientists.

UKRI’s knowledge exchange policy aims to improve public information, and support fair comparison among UK universities. Sharing and exchanging knowledge in the digital era is a challenge in itself, given it is being created at a higher pace than ever before. Human knowledge was doubling every 25 years at the end of WWII and it’s now doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the ‘internet of things’ will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours in the future.

While UK universities are world-leading in research and innovation, their innovative spin-outs are often acquired by foreign organisation, meaning the UK does not reap the full economic benefits of its own research funding. Increasing engagement and demand for innovation by UK businesses, to retain and commercialise the innovation and research asset developed in the UK will be a critical success factor for the industrial strategy.

This is a role that the Oil & Gas Technology Centre has played very successfully, so far. Since our launch almost a year ago, we have been working with the UK based oil and gas industry and academia to take new technologies from early stage concept right through to deployment.

Our TechX technology accelerator and incubator programmes add to that an additional level of support to start-ups with pioneering technology and SMEs looking to enter the oil and gas market. Both programmes go beyond the usual accelerator and incubator timeframe, working with partners such as BP, Scottish Enterprise, OGIC, ONE, and Elevator, to anchor the new breed of technology entrepreneurs to the region.

The UKRI programme is ambitious and rightly so. Its success will be judged in the coming months and years but there’s little doubt it is necessary. The world is changing fast, and the UK R&I landscape must transform to keep its leading position. At the Oil & Gas Technology Centre we look forward supporting the UKRI initiatives and increasing the link between research and Industry priorities.