Catapult Network – Written evidence (STS0045)
The Catapult Network brings together nine leading technology and innovation centres spanning over 40 locations across the UK. We are independent not-for-profit private organisations established and supported by Innovate UK, transforming the UK’s capability for innovation in sectors of strength.
The Catapult Network brings together the nine individual Catapults, each providing world-class resources in key sectors of strength, through specialist expertise, equipment, and market shaping capability that UK innovators can access to grow at scale. Catapults form a crucial link in the UK’s rich R&D ecosystem – helping organisations to de-risk their innovation strategies and to enable the investments that will create jobs, trade and sustainable prosperity.
The Catapult Network creates a combined capability which works across boundaries – we enable UK innovators to make the connections which address national priorities; rebuilding a post-pandemic economy, advancing health, digitisation, levelling up opportunities and delivering our Net Zero goals.
We work closely with other global, national, and regional partners, to bring together the market knowledge, convening power and access to technical resources that innovators can access to commercialise ideas and scale up as players on a global stage. We work with policy makers and regulators to help remove barriers to adoption and across sector and technological boundaries to accelerate the delivery of the widest benefits of innovation – to individual consumers, to the UK economy, and to society as a whole.
1. What would it mean for the UK to be a “science superpower?”
The UK is already a well-recognised science superpower in a number of key disciplines such as life sciences, engineering and social sciences. The high standing of science and research (ranked second in the world, with over 50% outputs considered world-leading) and quality of education, attract significant international talent (over 500,000 EU & Overseas students in 2019/20). Government needs to maintain and grow this competitive position through continued and appropriate levels of investment to match the ambition, backed by the implementation of long-term strategies, and having the right structures and incentives to operate flexibly, free of mechanistic barriers and bureaucracy.
A real science superpower needs to be making science the driving force in our economy, with success measured through the benefits that arise from the application of new knowledge and that help address significant national and global challenges (incl. technological, industrial, societal, etc), to create prosperity and to support the jobs of the future.
This is about making science and research outputs more industry and market relevant. The UK doesn’t have as deep pockets as other nations; hence we need to spend public funds more effectively. Leveraging public investment is key and the Catapults are natural entities to be able to create investable propositions (entities, programmes, facilities, etc) and business cases that private, industry and international finance can be crowded toward. If we want to be great at innovation as well as science, then every large investment in science needs to have its equivalent funding/entity in the translational space to maximise the initial investment. Currently, there is an imbalance across supply and demand with a lot of ideas/supply coming from science, but only a few picked up by industry/markets. The needs of the world/industry ought to be fed more strongly into the research base to enable innovation at a much larger scale. Catapults have strong industry networks and are best placed to understand these requirements.
A science superpower is also one that provides the right environment to attract the best possible diverse talent who will in turn, continue to nurture the process of knowledge creation. This involves attracting and (at times) retaining the top international talent, and nationally, ensuring more UK school students feel confident to pursue science and engineering university degrees, expanding access outside the golden triangle (alongside strengthening apprenticeships) to create wider, richer, more diverse pools of talent who may go on to take future careers in science. We welcome the recognition of science and research career paths and developing appropriate nurturing cultures, as described in the Government R&D People and Culture Strategy.
These achievements can only happen through a systemic change, which hopefully will be part of the levelling up strategy considerations. Levelling up leaders should work with universities and others locally to support HMG Departments in developing delivery plans which increase their contribution to this agenda.
The Office of Science and Technology key areas (1. Sustainable environment, 2. Health and LS, 3. National security, defence, space, 4. Digital and data driven economy) are comprehensive and provide focus on the most pressing priorities. However, the result will depend on delivery approaches, and in isolation these priorities do not guarantee the health of a nation. Government needs to develop frameworks, standards and regulations that enforce and embed the appropriate use of these technologies in a way that assures and enhances life quality of UK citizens and that allows everyone to benefit, across all parts of the nation (e.g. online safety laws).
2. Are the right structures in place in Government to implement a science and technology strategy?
● How should Government coordinate science policy across different departments, with different strategic priorities such as levelling up? What role could the National Science and Technology Council play?
● How should the National Science and Technology Council and the Office for Science and Technology Strategy interact with existing bodies like the UKRI Council and the Council for Science and Technology?
● Are the right levers and mechanisms in place for the delivery of a science and technology strategy?
● Who should be accountable for the delivery of a science and technology strategy?
● What ministerial representation should science and technology have?
The UK benefits from a rich innovation ecosystem where a large number of organisations are involved in delivery and this is very positive. However, the landscape is complex and fragmented; hence any new structures should focus on improving alignment and removing duplication.
Central to the success of any science and technology strategy is the need to recognise the importance of the relationship between innovation and place, using the opportunity to bridge between the UK Innovation Strategy and the Levelling Up agenda by advocating for innovation-led levelling up which would establish a nationwide R&D engine with each place playing its unique part and sharing in the benefits.
Government needs to supplement policy expertise with highly experienced programme managers/directors working in their fields of expertise. The Science Minister should be a Cabinet level position, and Government should create the role of Chief Innovation Advisor. These roles should have oversight of delivery for increases to RD&I expenditure (e.g. Levelling Up White Paper Mission 2, re. share distributed outside of the Greater South East); and encourage Cabinet Office to increase their Department's contribution to working alongside existing infrastructure, such as Catapults to crowd-in private investment to innovation ecosystems.
In terms of mechanisms, more needs to be done to modernise funding, to make it simpler, more accessible, more streamlined, to fund the very best science and most promising innovation, swiftly. UKRI should be promoting the introduction of agile funding mechanisms that cut across silos, such as offering a single entry point for research and innovation funding, supported by a robust intelligent back-office system for peer-review to manage decision-making across a wide range of disciplines, sectors, and industries. Mechanistic barriers to flexible forms of collaboration should be removed.
3. Does the introduction of a science and technology strategy challenge the Haldane principle and UKRI’s commitment to fund outstanding research?
The Haldane principle where Government cannot influence funding decisions on the ground for academic research is important and should be preserved. The selection of programmes should continue to be done by independent experts while ensuring greater diversity to help reduce bias. We should also consider applying the principle to the whole of the innovation landscape.
A balanced approach to managed and responsive funding should continue to allow bottom-up, as well strategic approaches. Government strategic priorities are often reflected in the development of new funding initiatives, tailored programmes, or alternative criteria for project selection. Bringing funders to account on how they helped implement Government priorities in a timely way should not impact the Haldane principle.
4. Is the UK realising the potential of its research investment?
There is a great level of simplification that Government could implement across funding of research and innovation, from competition rules, selection, all the way through to monitoring and evaluation. We certainly support the need to understand the value for money of public investment, but the disproportionate focus on measuring short term success of long-term programmes, alongside the lack of robust methodology to investigate complex interventions, gets in the way of delivery. The inability to easily arrive at a value of £x for every £1 invested does not mean that value is not being created or realised; often it means that value is being realised through a longer timeline and spilling out onto many directions, thus not easily measured. This complexity and non-linearity need to be better recognised.
The principles of UK-ARIA should certainly be applied across other Government structures involved in funding of research and innovation, especially if it means delivering benefits and value faster. Science and innovation require a culture of risk taking. Funding systems and approaches need to be more aligned with this to allow more successes to come through, and more quickly. The attempt to control the environment by which science and innovation is delivered, limits the potential to create real step-change.
Government needs to remove the structural barriers between individual Research Councils (RCs), and between RCs and Innovate UK, to create much more flexible cross-discipline, cross-sector, collaborative programmes. We need to better reward creation of knowledge across interdisciplinary boundaries, especially where this is helping address big challenges in society and delivering economic benefits swiftly. Demonstrating evidence of impact is already part of the Research Excellence Framework and the path to impact is a requirement in most research funding applications, but the funding to embark on follow on programmes is really limited and excludes the participations of key organisations that work to accelerate this process (Catapults/RTOs). Catapults can help research to mature to be picked up by industry sooner. Metrics that show how well universities work with Catapults, and funding to incentivise this collaboration should be introduced.
A more balanced approach is needed to extract the best possible economic benefit from research, such as making it more industry/market relevant and better utilising existing critical infrastructure to assist in this process. It is important also to better recognise the need for long-term goals in the development of critical infrastructure and maintain it. The success of vaccines was a result of a number of earlier interventions and decades of knowledge which through the power of collaboration and boosted investment, became a reality. Government also needs to better balance the level of scrutiny that it imposes across the different parts of the ecosystem. The excessive focus on proving value for money at the end of the chain, and more relaxed measures at early stages, is standing in the way of allowing organisations pursuing programmes closer to commercialisation.
We also require the right level of governance and clear leadership in programmes.
5. How should state funding for research and development be allocated between different organisations, who should make that decision and by what criteria?
Government should encourage strategies, infrastructure and platforms that accelerate opportunities for market creation/growth, industrialisation, without halting the exploratory nature of discovery.
We also need to help industry to embrace longer-term challenges to drive change and growth. Longer-term opportunities are often about shaping new markets that don’t exist today, bringing different sectors and different industry players together. This can only happen with a strong Government to bring industry on the journey and key infrastructure such as Catapults playing a critical role. Without this, industry is locked into silos and the constraints of existing industry business models continue to be geared toward maintaining the status quo. This is not favourable when the market, political, and technological landscape is changing so fast.
It would be beneficial to have more organisations involved in the funding for research and innovation, working in partnership with Government to assure the due diligence. The Department for Transport’s contract with Connected Places Catapult to deliver T-TRIG funding or DCMS contracting with Digital Catapult to deliver programmes in the development of 5G testbeds are great examples.
Government departments need to fund research and innovation which will help them develop understanding of the fundamentals of R&D, which in turn, can improve the ability to develop relevant strategies, and provide the needed continuity and longevity across changing Governments.
Furthermore, the Government should extend its use of the 'Devolution Deals' mechanism to drive the benefits of R&D for local economies. For example, North Tyne MCA's £10million Digital Innovation Fund has enabled collaboration with Catapults to drive digital adoption across industries and to develop the skills of local people to excel in the jobs of the future.
Government should not incentivise the centralisation of power across single organisations as this does not invite dynamic agile approaches but instead, risks creating additional bureaucracy through slow systems to manage large demand and large funds.
An innovation nation can only come to fruition by addressing the balance of funding to support more development (More D!), utilising existing national infrastructure (Catapults/RTOs/PRSEs) and making them ‘essential delivery partners’ on research and innovation funding, through central funding bodies (RCs, IUK) as well as through Government Depts programmes, local and regional programmes. This would fully realise the mission of these organisations which is to encourage businesses to develop innovation into commercialisation, accelerate Return on Investment, and stimulate demand while removing the barriers to adoption. Catapults aggregate the understanding of hundreds of businesses in their respective industries/sectors, hence ideally placed to understand the industry and market needs, to support better alignment.
Catapults are trusted in their sectors, essential to the delivery of the benefits of a science superpower and a central part of delivering innovation for the future of the UK.
We need research to be more ambitious. Researchers have the freedom to push boundaries and yet a lot of research is very incremental, due to the constraints in funding mechanisms. Taking more risk and being more ambitious is essential.
6. What more should be done to encourage private-sector investment in research and development in the UK?
Progress towards to the 2.4% has been slow and the £22bn ambition has been moved back 2 years. Government needs to look at what infrastructures and approaches are currently in existence which are helping extract the highest levels of leverage, and then boost incentives to these structures, making them an essential part of delivery. Catapults in 2020/21 alone, attracted leverage in the form of £155m from commercial contracts, £119m in collaborative R&D grants, plus £181m was received by partners in CR&D, against an annual public funding of £239m. To date, Catapults have mobilised over £3bn of R&D activity (incl. funds received). Furthermore, companies who work with Catapults in projects go on to attract further leverage from investors, through increased maturity of their innovation, etc. Collaboration between academia and industry needs to be catalysed by maximising the role of such bridging organisations.
There should be not one single owner of this role [be it universities reaching out to industry, KTN connect, or Innovate UK shopfront], but there is a collective shared responsibility to promote linkages which can be maximised by better coordination across all areas of the landscape.
The Cambridge cluster arose from creating consultancy from university expertise (“put the brains of the University at the disposal of industry”) and co-location with businesses in the region, which grew bigger and stronger. It is important to assess the local readiness for the implementation of similar models, to ensure the talent, and its movement from universities to business and vice-versa, the business demand, the financial support, the right setting, etc (see Connected Places Catapult Hubs of Innovation Report). Ultimately, successful clusters require people, a whole ecosystem and capability around the local area. It requires several investments at local, regional, and central level that with time come together, and joined up approaches to reach critical mass.
The public sector is often a very risk averse customer; hence not often an early adopter of new offerings. Public procurement expertise in procuring R&D needs to be enhanced, as this route is inherently riskier and less certain than typical commercial supply contracts. Procurement processes tend to be conservative and incentivise ‘tried and tested’ vs innovative solutions. Expanding the use of processes which encourage new approaches and allowing public bodies to directly procure the solution developed should be encouraged.
7. How well does the UK collaborate on research with international partners and what can it learn from other countries?
The UK has been a critical partner in European and international programmes across many areas of science, research and innovation. We support continued collaboration with Europe as an associate member, or alternatives that promote similar levels of interaction. Exclusion of the UK from participating in major developments such as Galileo and Copernicus risks the ability to deliver on key policy and national objectives.
A decision about whether to collaborate or compete will require a strategic and tactical assessment within each field of expertise. Catapults would be very happy to provide further insights in their specific areas of expertise.
It is important the UK continues to build collaborations and opportunities for UK export and to develop strong markets where it has a comparative advantage for instance, to help accelerate the global low carbon energy transition. ‘Collaborate’ allows the UK to capitalise on complementary capability such as that seen in the development of partnerships with Asian markets in low carbon industries, electronics and photonics and the USA, Canada, and Japan in life sciences.
‘Compete’ is an approach suited to areas that pose threats to national security, such as telecoms and defence, or where global market leadership is at play. Recent global political and health events have demonstrated the importance of strengthening sovereign capability across medicines, food and energy.
Government needs to take a proactive role in influencing international collaborative programmes, through systematic engagement with the research base and industry to identify UK strengths, gaps and key market opportunities. This requires more efficient coordination across Government Departments to ensure that the strengths of UK academia, innovation and industry are consistently championed when setting international engagement agendas.
25 March 2022