Raising the return – how do we do it?

Bottles in a lab
(picture credit: Linden Tea)
In the final blogpost in our series on asset sharing, Sarah Jackson and Luke Georghiou say that despite the progress in this area, more work must be done to deliver the full benefits.

As we head towards the general election one thing is clear – public spending restrictions will remain for the foreseeable future. We will all need to show the benefits from investments in research, and demonstrate that money is being invested wisely to deliver the greatest possible return for every pound spent.

The need to make the case for scientific infrastructure and equipment is no different, despite the long term commitment to the science capital roadmap

In our first blog we showed that both new, cutting edge science and maximum value to the public purse are being delivered by more effective deployment of research equipment. Facilities are being shared within universities, across higher education collaborative networks and with business,and this is strengthening the science and innovation system.

We are also becoming more efficient too, for example using the sector’s purchasing power to get the best deals for maintenance and service warranties and using the government procurement service to reduce the cost of energy bills.

So far so good, but unfortunately that is not job done. Despite the good progress, significant barriers remain. To deliver the full benefits of equipment sharing, further steps are needed:

a. Measuring the rates and benefits of sharing will accelerate progress. We propose this should be done through a basket of metrics which include monitoring shared use of TRAC listed-facilities and business use through the Higher Education Business Community and Interaction survey. Importantly, both are existing data sets – this needs to be a light touch exercise.

b. No-cost incentives can be built into the current funding system (words that would surely delight any politician!). These incentives can accelerate culture change and greater trust between users, Ideas include sharing credit on large grants, funders ensuring flexibility for the capital and operational costs of shared facilities and where appropriate, funding bids to include mechanisms for sharing as key criteria.

c.  Longer term planning can support more optimal allocations of funding. Equipment roadmaps should be used. Sharing can be facilitated by smart specialisation at institutional and regional levels and by balancing competition and collaboration across the sector.

A word on the funders – they should be congratulated. HEFCE and the research councils, particularly the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, have already done great work to support and incentivise progress. They continue to have a critical role to play in taking this forward.

We have titled this report Raising the Return. Through the course of our work it became clear that universities are delivering rising value from the investment in UK science infrastructure.

This is increasing productivity and retaining the UK’s significant international standing in research. In turn this supports large and small businesses to develop new technologies, to innovate and grow.

The return to the UK taxpayer is already significant, and with further support the sector is ready to do much more

They are on twitter at @lukegeorghiou and @sarah_jackson

photo credit: CMOG [45] via photopin (license)