Research and development: synergy as a next step

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2011

The UK coalition Government’s funding announcements will have a profound effect on research priorities in the coming years. While science remains relatively unscathed, the pressure to turn a penny could see some industries benefit from R&D more than others. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen finds out more.

The announcement that the UK science budget is to be protected at £4.6bln per annum through to 2014/15, came as a great relief for most. It represents a modest, yet welcome acknowledgement by the coalition Government of the significant role science plays in the UK’s economy.

Typically, a percentage of the annual science budget goes directly to universities to fund scientific infrastructure, the remainder is then distributed by the Research Councils UK to the seven research councils (RCs) to hand out as grants. As part of the settlement to ring-fence the science budget efficiency savings will be made. Meanwhile, the budget of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has been maintained, though the exact details of its settlement are yet to be announced.

Yet while institutions anticipating a looming 25% cut are now appeased, some establishments see the announcement as a worrying stagnation, as international competitors, such as China and India, are looking to double their percentage of GDP spent on scientific research.

Dr Steve Taylor of the Institute of Research and Development at Birmingham Research Park, UK, remarks, ‘The outcome was not as bad as people were led to believe it may have been. The flat funding position in real terms will end up to be about a 10% cut overall and that’s as good as what the science community could have hoped for.

‘That, however, does not necessarily reflect what we see in the rest of the world with regards to investment in R&D. I think the message from Government is to do more with less. The message is also clear that we have got to get excellent materials research into realisable outcomes, with a higher return on investment for the economy. I suspect we will start to see more on that when the Research Council delivery plans come out.’

Taylor anticipates there will be sharing of research facilities so as to avoid the duplication of higher value assets, certainly with sites such as the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Diamond Synchrotron.

He comments, ‘I think we will see shared usage of not only high value large facilities but medium facilities also. The prospect of an academic having immediate access to equipment or a facility will become quite challenging.

Also, we are seeing companies like Airbus, BAE systems, GSK and Rolls Royce work with universities, but we need to see this more. It is, however, hard for smaller companies to invest in research. Business expenditure on R&D in the UK shows we are lagging behind with an OECD average of 1.5%. One of the reasons for this is that we are seeing a lot more overseas R&D taking place, particularly offshoring of R&D. Also, I think the UK is moving towards a greater service industry focus, so it’s not necessarily a decline but a new focus on advanced manufacturing R&D.’

Change in focus

The pressure to align science research objectives with commercial demand has been both a pressing and heavily debated issue among the science community, with scientists concerned about the limits posed on bluesky research as a result. A key factor for the UK to sustain a diverse and high quality research portfolio that meets commercial drivers, it seems, will be through a more tangible synergy between industry and academia. The Government’s Technology Innovation Centres (TICs) initiative, due to rollout later this year, will be one way towards achieving this goal.

David Bott, Director of Innovation Programmes at the TSB, UK, explains, ‘The two main reasons for TIC’s, as identified by Hermann Hauser [who wrote a review of the centres], was the idea of having people from different backgrounds work together to solve a problem. Whether that be sociologists working with engineers and materials scientists, or collaboration in cases where the equipment needed for a research project is either very expensive or fast moving’.

However, Bott adds cautiously that centres are not the right answer for everything. He explains that, ‘they form an eco-system for innovation, but you will not have centres everywhere in the UK. In fact, the money allocated is currently enough for eight centres. So the idea that it is an instantaneous solution is rather misleading.

‘Futhermore, for them to work you need lots of people from different backgrounds to input that wealth of experience. You are looking at an infrastructure cost of approximately £10m a year for a TIC. The formal timeline is April 2011 for them to be up and running and existing centres will also be transitioning or upgrading so this date could vary.’

The TICs will be independent organisations accountable to the TSB for delivery. Bott notes, 'The centres will not require a large central organisation to run them, they will be largely autonomous, yet we will monitor progress. So if they fail, their money is likely to restricted or cut’.

Kenny Legg, European Research and Development Advisor of Enterprise Europe Network South West, thinks EU collaborative projects will play a role in providing economic support for research. 

He mentions, ‘We are urging high-tech SMEs in the Southwest to explore the benefits of EUfunded collaborative research and development projects. Participation can give organisations the chance to access advanced technology, benefit from collaboration with key industry players, access to cutting edge technology development and the ability to access new markets. However, applying for EU funding can be a timely and expensive process so it is essential that organisations ensure their proposal fits the criteria.’

A validated market

Bott remains confident for both UK science academic research and particularly industry innovation and suggests that the materials science community and industry focus on three main areas. The first being sustainable energy technology.

He says, ‘We have been working with the Energy Technology Institute and the Carbon Trust to look at low-carbon technology for conventional power generation... We have also been evaluating options for the nuclear supply chain but we need clarity from Government on their intent’.

Healthcare will also be an area for growth vows Bott, ‘We are living longer. Our bodies are not designed to work well at 85 – fields such as regenerative medicine and assisted living are where materials especially can provide solutions.’

Lastly he notes, transport, will also be a ‘validated market’, in the quest to dramatically lower carbon emissions by 2050. He expands, ‘We are creating leading technologies in that field and we need to build on this. Our economy cannot do without it, so again improving efficiency and also creating models to monitor performance of transport systems and the materials used will be necessary. These areas have strong growth rates and ultimately make doing business a lot easier’.

New dawn for education

The real term cut of 10% to the science budget overall, however, is more pertinent in light of the blow to general higher education funding, which will see a reduction from £7.1bln to £4.2 bln by 2014/15. Both higher and further education as a whole is being reformed to deliver 65% in ‘resource savings’. Although funding for STEM subjects will continue, the confirmation of an increase in tuition fees will no doubt place pressure on universities to recruit and retain material science postgraduates.

Dr Tim Bullough, Director of the UK Centre for Materials Education, University of Liverpool, UK, says the increasing need for universities to guarantee fee income streams may result in institutions becoming more responsive to both their students and employers in curriculum development.

He suggests, ‘This may push quality teaching delivery up the agenda in many universities. It may also encourage more diverse delivery methods, such as distance and workplace learning, to develop in conventional campus-based universities. He adds, ‘Materials education is in some ways fortunate, in that the discipline is recognised as having strategic importance to the UK economy, and materials programme developers are generally very adept at responding to external factors to optimise income.

‘In the past this may have been in response to the number of materials undergraduate students being relatively low. The [sector] has created quite a buoyant sustainable materials postgraduate teaching activity. Yet, many materials courses do rely on being subsidised to some extent by research funding income/ facilities, and constraints in funding streams may have a serious impact’.

While a drawn out recession will always have unforeseen circumstances attached, it seems apparent for the most part, that the direction of materials science will inevitably need to be realigned towards both functional and commercial feasibility, to maintain both a national and international scientific and economic presence. As Mr Chintamani N.R.Rao, materials chemist and Chairman of the Science Advisory Council said in an address to the Indian Government to increase R&D spend, ‘the prospect of India as an economic power…without scientific leadership…might be unsustainable’. The same sentiment invariably applies to the UK.