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Public sector spending on R&D in the UK is very concentrated: 41 per cent is spent in the ‘Golden Triangle’ between Oxford, Cambridge and London. In February, the Government committed in the Budget to increase R&D spending from 1.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 to help it achieve its goal of levelling up the whole country and an R&D Place Strategy will be published later this year to drive place-based outcomes and level up the UK.
However, while there is broad consensus that there should be a geographic shift in the balance of R&D spending, there is less agreement on where it should be spent to have the greatest impact.
To help answer this, we can draw on some of the findings of a piece the Centre for Cities has produced for the Connected Places Catapult. The work analysed innovation statistics from several different data sources to provide a framework for policymakers follow. The work is inspired by a recent report from the Brookings Institute for the US which called for the creation of ‘Growth Centers’ outside of established innovation hubs.
Here are five key takeaways from our data on Great Britain to inform the national R&D Place Strategy.
The data on R&D and innovation at the local level is scarce and there are many ways to measure innovative activities. The indices referred to in this blog encompass the following indicators:
The indices are built using z-scores for the underlying measures and normalised to 100.
 All variables within the indices are equally weighted besides patent strength index (Patents per 10,000 population: 25%, Patents concentration, by field: 75%)
Not all places in Great Britain have the same ability to house and to grow their innovative capacities by developing new products and services that spur the economy. This depends on the “stock” of people, facilities or skills they already have in a place.
Figure 1 below shows a map of the innovative capacities of Great Britain’s cities and largest towns. You can see large variation in their innovative capacity, with those greener circles in the Greater South East performing better than their purple northern counterparts. This map should influence decisions about which places to prioritise for further public R&D investment. Mainly in places outside the ‘Golden Triangle’ – to facilitate regional redistribution – but with a strong innovative capacity.
Universities receive a significant proportion of public R&D spending, and it is often assumed that their work creates local economic growth.
But figure 2 below compares workplace wages in a city (as an indicator for the economic performance) with the local university’s innovation strength. From this it seems that the reality is less clear-cut: Whether a city a university strong in research and innovation does not inevitably dictate how successful its wider economy is.
There are plenty of places – such as Preston, Cardiff or Coventry – that score well for university innovation but poorly on wages. On the other hand, places such as Slough, Aldershot or Crawley have no world-leading research university but offer people higher than average wages.
One possible explanation for the weak link between excelling universities and the economic success of a place may be that a lot of research conducted in universities is theoretical and less applied to the real world. While theoretical research is very important for economic performance in the long run, it does not necessarily link to immediate product development or fast market access. Also, the research breakthroughs that take place within universities may then be transformed into products in other cities with a stronger business base. For example, while the University of Manchester invented graphene, much of its commercial application into products now takes place in South Korea – not Manchester.
So, to benefit the local economy, public R&D investment targeting universities should focus more on applied research that benefits the broader market.
However, the relationship between the innovative capacity of businesses and the strength of their local economies is much clearer. Places with more innovative businesses perform generally better on workplace wages than those with innovative universities. This may be because the innovative activities of firms have a more direct local impact – more educated workers, higher wages etc.
Development activities in firms do more frequently lead to immediate product or service development which often benefits local supply chains raising wages and strengthening the local economy. Because of this, public R&D investment should specifically target businesses to increase the innovative capacity of the private sector.
R&D spending is often used to increase local economic growth and to directly benefit the place where innovative activities occur. But innovation output, either through patents or trademarks registered or both, does not always equate to wider outcomes in the place as shown in Figure 4 below.
Oxford, Cambridge and Coventry, for instance, have very high innovation outputs when it comes to patents but have not the high wages one would expect. A similar pattern is seen in Figure 3: Cities such as Liverpool or Brighton have high business innovation strength but comparatively lower workplace wages.
Programmes and policies targeting R&D and innovation will have to investigate how the knowledge created locally can benefit the place and how to reach higher levels of diffusion and knowledge transfer in the area.
As shown in previous figures, not all places in the UK possess the same capacity to transform innovative activities into outputs. Often, places with low innovative capacities are lacking crucial “ingredients” to perform well such as their ability to attract businesses and to provide employment opportunities to individuals.
Figure 5 below shows that, in general, places with access to a larger pool of skilled workers and stronger jobs density perform better than those with a smaller pool and lower density.
This also holds for patents, trademarks and broader business innovation indicators. Therefore, before targeting the innovative capacity of weaker places through increased public R&D investment, these places require other interventions such as investment in skills or public infrastructure.
The planned increase in public R&D spending is a welcome way to level up the UK. Caution must be used however when deciding on where to spend the money. Not all places in the UK have a decent innovative capacity to transform R&D investments into outputs. Also, simply increasing the funding will probably be not enough. It must also come with more direct responsibility for the places themselves. In their report for NESTA, Tom Forth and Richard Jones for instance call for Innovation Deals for nations, regions and cities with the capacity to spend it right.
Because there is a strong link between business innovation strength and the economic success of a place, any further investments in R&D must consider how to maximise innovation activities in the private sector and how to increase business spending on R&D.
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