Written evidence submitted by Imperial College London (LRS0019)

 

Summary

 

  1. Imperial College London’s mission is to achieve enduring excellence in research and education in science, engineering, medicine and business for the benefit of society. Imperial is one of the world’s top universities with the greatest concentration of high-impact research of any major UK university and is ranked as the most innovative university in the UK and second in Europe.

 

  1. Research-intensive universities like Imperial are uniquely placed to spearhead an R&D led recovery with ambitious research, education and innovation programmes. We can intensify and expand our role in the innovation-driven knowledge economy, our STEM skills training and our investment in critical research infrastructure and networks.

 

    1. A new Imperial-X ‘campus’ will establish the UK as an international leader across key digital technologies such as AI, data science and machine learning, and provide skilled graduates and lifelong learning opportunities for the UK labour force.

 

  1. The green recovery must be at the heart of any economic strategy. This is a unique opportunity for government, universities, industry and civic partners to work together to reduce emissions through the development and utilisation of green technologies and progress towards the net zero target. This will cement and further the UK’s position as a world leader in green technologies, thereby supporting our scientific excellence and economic prosperity.

 

    1. Imperial’s pioneering multidisciplinary programme Transition to Zero Pollution will lead a radical shift in industrial systems, technologies, and business models. A new CleanTech Hub will position the UK as a global leader in the growth of green technologies.

 

  1. Health resilience must also be a key focus of public policy and investment going forward. It is vital that we boost our capacity to defend against any future pandemics through effective public policy strategies and strengthening our research into vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutic treatments. Strengthening the UK’s health resilience will prevent future waves of novel diseases from damaging our economic recovery and ensure the UK is a world leader in crucial scientific fields.

 

    1. Our world-renowned School of Public Health will be joined by a global Institute of Infection which will create a critical mass for cross-disciplinary research in infection.

 

Supporting innovation across the UK

 

  1. At the heart of the UK’s economic recovery from COVID-19 must be investment in research and innovation. With further policy measures, research-intensive universities like Imperial can intensify and expand our role in the innovation-driven knowledge economy, our STEM skills training and our investment in critical research infrastructure and networks. We are uniquely placed to spearhead a research-led recovery with ambitious research, education and innovation programmes.

 

    1. Innovation is a core part of Imperial’s activity: our research income from industry in 2018/19 was £65m. In the last year alone, Imperial filed 153 patents – translating our world-class research into products and technologies which benefit people across the UK. Between 2015 and 2019, our researchers and students created more than 190 companies and attracted around £800 million of investment. Our active companies are currently supporting 1,300 jobs, driving economic growth and innovation. Two new start-ups were recently formed directly based on Imperial research in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and we launched a new Innovation Fund this year to invest in early-stage, high-growth, knowledge-intensive companies.

 

    1. Imperial builds an enterprising culture that is integral to our education and research community, with entrepreneurship at its core. Our Enterprise Lab is home to the College’s flagship student entrepreneurship support programmes, which help students develop business ideas through masterclasses and coaching, culminating in showcases in which finalists are invited to bid for a share of a prize fund.

 

    1. Our student start-ups are developing new technologies and products which create jobs and have a positive benefit for society. Jelly Drops, an Imperial start-up, has invented a bite-sized, sugar-free sweet containing 95% water and electrolytes to keep people with dementia hydrated. Partnering with Alzheimer’s UK, they have started to supply Jelly Drops to NHS hospitals around the UK.

 

  1. We can drive local and national industrial strategies and co-locate with start-ups and global companies to create jobs and economic growth in our communities and across the UK.

 

    1. Our White City Campus is at the heart of the new White City Innovation District in West London. Our White City Incubator is a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, providing office and laboratory space, and support for early-stage companies. Companies based in our Incubator have created over 150 jobs and attracted £97m of investment. These companies include Puraffinity, which is developing a new biomaterial to capture and recycle hazardous micro-pollutants in industrial wastewater, and MediSieve which is beginning to trial new methods to treat blood-borne diseases like sepsis and leukaemia using magnetic technology.

 

    1. Investment in research at Imperial drives high quality scientific output that has importance and impact way beyond our campus boundaries and supports valuable collaborations with research partners across the UK for the benefit of society as a whole. Between 2016 and 2019, Imperial shared research grants with over 400, and co-authored publications with over 700, UK organisations.

 

  1. To power the UK’s economic recovery from COVID-19, the government can take further steps to support university innovation and collaboration with industry.

 

    1. We will work with government to build on the ideas set out in the R&D roadmap, including scaling-up university start-ups. In the UK, there is currently a lack of series B funding – which takes a small business with an established team and product to the next stage of development – particularly for technology companies. There are different ways that this issue could be addressed, such as tax breaks for scale-up funds or by improving access to finance by mandating pension funds to put a proportion of their investment into UK tech start-ups. Additional investment (through ‘B’ stream QR and HEIF) should be made available to support university-industry collaboration as an initial step to address this.

 

    1. There is an absence of support for researchers at an earlier stage when they are looking to translate their ideas into new products and technologies. In particular, many research projects stop at technology readiness level 3 (TRL) due to a lack of proof of concept funding. The Impact Acceleration Accounts offered by some research councils have proved effective but are currently relatively small. A substantial expansion of these would be a very cost-effective means of supporting research translation.

 

    1. To encourage inward investment from international sources, in addition to increased public funding for research and innovation the government should ensure clear signposting for investors and make long-term commitments to the research base. UK trade missions should also focus on encouraging inward investment in tech.

 

    1. EU Framework Programmes for R&D have a particular role in kickstarting precommercial research collaborations with UK and international industry, with attractive financial terms for SMEs in particular. This allows researchers to work with non-UK companies who have specific technologies needed, and enables UK SMEs to work cost-effectively with academic partners. We strongly support association to Horizon Europe.

 

    1. To strengthen the contribution of Innovate UK to growth and innovation, there should be a focus on the body matching investors pound-for-pound and taking a stake in the company accordingly, in a similar way to the Future Fund. Bureaucracy could also be reduced by moving from a focus on time-limited individual funding calls to an open-ended application process. Innovate UK and UKRI could consider combining funding at higher TRL levels to improve the transition from research to a viable product.

 

STEM skills to boost the economic recovery

 

  1. STEM skills are the foundation for sectors which are central to the UK’s success in the global economy, such as life sciences, chemical engineering, green energy, artificial intelligence and robotics. STEM graduates are vital to ensuring key public services like the NHS are able to meet the demands of health emergencies.

 

  1. Ensuring the supply of STEM graduates is critical to supporting productivity and growth through innovation, as well as securing a strong domestic pipeline of highly skilled graduates.[1] High-cost STEM subjects must remain sustainable to deliver:

 

    1. Imperial teaches entirely STEM subjects at undergraduate level where the cost of delivering a degree to a domestic student exceeds the tuition fee income in every case, with an average deficit of around £4,100 per undergraduate student per year. Increasing per capita funding of high cost STEM subjects to cover actual cost of course delivery would help stabilise the research and skills pipeline.

 

    1. A world-class STEM education not only benefits the UK economy as a whole, but also individual graduates. Imperial students consistently benefit from some of the highest average salaries three and five years after graduation in the UK university sector.[2] 

 

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the value of world-class expertise in a range of areas, including health, AI, data, mathematics, economics, and chemical and mechanical engineering. To ensure our future preparedness for public health crises, the government must ensure that there is adequate support for researchers at all stages of their career and there is a strong pipeline of STEM skills so the UK continues to develop world-class talent in such areas.
     
  2. Government should encourage companies to think more long-term to attract the best talent into industry and meet the STEM skills shortage. Increasing the funding for MSc students and working closely with industry on the course content (as used to be the case with former Research Councils MSc studentships) would support the STEM skills pipeline.

 

    1. Our new Imperial-X ‘campus’ at White City will cement the UK as a global leader in the digital technologies of the future, such as AI, data science and machine learning. The project will integrate staff and students alongside industry through physical and virtual collaboration. In addition to developing new models of entrepreneurship and innovation for new technologies, Imperial-X will address major obstacles to realising the UK’s full economic potential through flexible technical courses aimed at upskilling and retraining people whose jobs are affected by the digital revolution.

 

Investing in R&D to solve global challenges

 

Net zero target and the green recovery

 

  1. Addressing global pollution challenges requires ambition on an unprecedented scale. The coronavirus pandemic has clearly shown how “known unknowns” (known possibilities around which we haven’t planned sufficiently, often because they are too difficult and disruptive in their impact) can quickly create enormous global impact. Climate change presents a number of these, including climate system tipping points and a serious deterioration in international cooperation that makes global collective action to reduce emissions less likely. It means that acting now to ensure a green recovery is more pressing than ever. This is where the implementation of the government’s science vision, skills training and innovation can be transformational.

 

  1. Imperial’s new strategic programme Transition to Zero Pollution will bring together ideas around resource management, health and environmental impacts, socio-economic and human behaviour in a ‘whole system’ approach. Going beyond traditional silos, we are instigating major new research and education programmes across four pillars: fundamental engineering and scientific research to underpin the transition; the water-food-energy-production nexus; impact on environmental and human health; and innovative economic and business models. Examples of projects within the Transition to Zero Pollution initiative include:

 

    1. The Greener Plastic Future programme is an ambitious initiative to address plastic waste and prevent it entering the ocean and wider environment. An interdisciplinary group of researchers is working across the entire life cycle of plastics to bring about real change in consumer behaviour and sourcing raw materials, manufacturing, using and recycling plastics.

 

    1. The Integrated Development of Low-Carbon Energy Systems (IDLES) programme brings together researchers from across Imperial to provide the evidence needed to facilitate a cost-effective and secure transition to a low-carbon future. This has the potential to enable large cost savings in providing decarbonised energy, to ensure security of supply and compliance with emissions targets.

 

  1. There is a real opportunity now for government to ensure a green recovery that will support the economy and move the UK towards achieving the net zero target at the same time, through linking all infrastructure investments to green priorities.

 

    1. Investing in industrial decarbonisation creates growth and can ensure levelling up, for example through investing in new energy plants with inbuilt carbon capture storage across the UK, and especially in industrial clusters in areas where jobs are needed most.

 

  1. In the lead up to COP26, there is an opportunity for the UK to lead the COVID-19 green recovery internationally, for example through providing guidance and methodologies to evaluate proposed recovery packages for consistency with the Paris Agreement and net-zero emissions. Imperial’s Grantham Institute Climate Change and the Environment is leading the COP26 universities network to ensure that evidence from across the sector is shared with non-academic audiences at this key time.

 

    1. The UK could lead by example with a recovery package that includes components on net-zero buildings, energy storage, clean industry, transport and greenhouse gas removal. There is more scope to invest in green energy in particular.

 

    1. Financially, a new National Investment Bank and focus on green financial instruments could enable the process.

 

    1. Building on these domestic efforts, as COP26 President, the UK could coordinate a global response through a new flexible inter-governmental Sustainable Recovery Alliance.

 

  1. Sustainable urban development planning must include analysing the role of the blue-green infrastructure and can also support new financial models for their increased uptake.

 

  1. We must invest in both new cutting edge and proven technologies to cut carbon emissions, and ensure that existing technologies are actually scaled up and taken up to have an effect. This requires the right policies and regulation. This would support the work of projects like that led by Imperial’s Professor James Durrant, who is developing the next generation of solar technologies which could be used to power everyday devices, zero-emission vehicles and telecommunications networks. A key part of this work is developing low-carbon, low-cost manufacturing methods so these new technologies can be produced at scale.

 

  1. In addition to sustained public investment, private sector involvement is essential to developing a greenhouse gas removal sector at the scale required to address climate change and there are considerable commercial opportunities.

 

    1. The transition towards energy systems in which low-carbon renewable energy sources like wind and solar power requires effective electrical energy storage, as wind and solar power produce a variable energy output. The status of storage technologies varies across industry sectors and this will require investment. This is crucial for the work of researchers like Imperial’s Dr Qilei Song, who is developing next-generation, cross-effective redox flow batteries which could enable large-scale storage of energy from renewable sources.

 

    1. Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies are a growing focus in many countries, with the aim of achieving a low-carbon energy system. The UK is well-placed to develop and secure some of the economic opportunities associated with this market both in the UK and abroad. The government’s Clean Growth Strategy and the UK Committee on Climate Change have identified hydrogen as the most cost-effective option for decarbonising parts of the UK energy system, alongside increased electrification using low-carbon electricity. Imperial is at the forefront of advances in these technologies: based on research by Professor Nigel Brandon, Imperial start-up Ceres Power is developing fuel cells which use substances like hydrogen to power low- or zero-emission vehicles and is now the UK’s most valuable cleantech company.

 

    1. The government’s investment in projects so far will be helpful in promoting the public perception of new hydrogen technologies by demonstrating the technical feasibility of these technologies. However, new policy framework and financial incentives are required in order to enhance the competitiveness of hydrogen technologies in the energy sector, and to encourage private investment in technology scale-up and supply chain development. Government investment in the science and skills provision underpinning hydrogen technologies will also be needed to support the sector as it continues to grow. 

 

Health preparedness and resilience

 

  1. Strengthening the UK’s health resilience will prevent future coronavirus outbreaks (or other novel diseases) from damaging our economic recovery and will also ensure that the UK is a world leader in important scientific fields.

 

    1. Public investment in research-intensive institutions like Imperial has supported government and public services in the fight against COVID-19. We welcome the specific schemes which UKRI and NIHR have rapidly launched to support research and innovation. This investment has led to new and more effective technologies, equipment and insight to tackle COVID-19 and has strengthened the capacity of our public services to deal with the pandemic.

 

  1. We welcome steps the government is planning to strengthen our resilience to future health emergencies, such as accelerating and expanding the Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre and establishing the Joint Biosecurity Centre. Sustained public investment in research and innovation will also be essential to our health preparedness in the future.

 

    1. Imperial is creating a new global Institute for Infection with extensive co-location of researchers and clinicians with shared containment facilities for both cell-based and animal-based studies and will be at the forefront of vaccine development and manufacture. It will convene a world-leading critical mass of expertise in infection research with more than 100 principal investigators and a greater research output than the Institut Pasteur. The Institute has capacity and capability to become one of the major research centres in this area – attracting global leaders in this field to the UK and fostering new international collaborations and networks to address disease challenges across the world.

 

  1. COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of international collaboration in tackling pandemics. The steps which bodies such as UKRI have taken to encourage cooperation in areas like information sharing, and the government’s support for initiatives like the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), are very positive. Future global cooperation in health research will be essential to ensure our future resilience to similar crises. The government should therefore prioritise continued support for international research collaboration, including through schemes like Horizon Europe which will have specific funding streams on emerging risks and health resilience.

 

August 2020

 


[1] There is unmet demand from employers for STEM skills, with 40% of employers reporting that a shortage of STEM graduates being a key barrier in recruiting appropriate staff. The current STEM shortage is estimated to cost £1.5 billion a year and new STEM roles are expected to double by 2028.

[2] Figures published recently show that 97% of our graduates are in highly-skilled employment fifteen months after graduation – the highest figure for any major UK university. Five years after graduation, the median salary ranges from £32,200 to £59,200.