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One size doesn’t fit all in terms of R&D and innovation

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While some of us have been able to work at home during the Covid-19 crisis – and may have actually improved our productivity – this has not been the case for most of those involved in research and development (R&D).

Effects of lockdown on research

Lockdown has meant no access to laboratories or the specialist kit needed, so many (R&D) projects in universities and companies came to a dead stop with others put on hold. R&D projects may also have been cut back for other reasons too of course as firms have needed to address more immediate financial and operational issues.

Research findings

We undertook some research recently for Innovate UK to explore the challenges that innovating firms face due to Covid-19 and how Innovate UK could help. The results from Innovate UK grant holders suggest that around 1:9 firms stopped all of their R&D activities during the lockdown period.

More worrying perhaps is that around 65% of firms reduced the scale of their R&D activities during the lockdown period and that around a third of firms plan to reduce their investment in R&D by more than half over the next three months.

This is not unexpected. Following the financial crisis of 2008-10 UK firms sharply reduced levels of R&D and innovation activity, levels which only recovered fully 4-6 years after the end of the crisis.

Decline in Research & Development

Equally important was that falls in R&D and innovation after the financial crisis were very unevenly spread across sectors and regions. R&D and innovation in Northern regions of the UK and more traditional manufacturing sectors either never recovered or were slower to recover than those in other areas/sectors.

How levels of R&D and innovation activity in different sectors and areas have been affected by Covid-19 is not yet clear. We do know that weaker industries/regions are tending to be hardest hit by the current wave of redundancies.

Finding patterns

If the patterns of 2011-2015 are repeated, and R&D and innovation levels in the same industries/areas also fall this will also mean that these sectors and areas will have less capacity to recover as opportunities improve.

Falls in R&D and innovation in businesses also have other knock-on effects with around 1 in 3 Innovate UK grant holders suggesting that they had reduced their spend on collaboration with universities during lock-down.

Few firms are planning to increase their level of spend on university collaboration, with around two-thirds planning no change and 1 in 6 planning to reduce spend by more than 50%. The effects on the R&D capacity of universities may be significant, particularly if this trend continues for any significant period.

The way forward

Government has recently reaffirmed its target of raising R&D spend in the UK to 2.4%  of GDP by 2027, a significant increase on its pre-crisis level of 1.7% (2018). The impacts of the Covid-19 crisis make this target all the more difficult to achieve.

Re-thinking the value of a single national target for R&D spend may now make sense given the likelihood that the Covid-19 crisis will have very different regional and sectoral impacts.

If we are to take levelling up seriously, we need a more nuanced approach to R&D and innovation targets which recognise the distinct needs and capabilities of different UK regions and sectors.


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  1. Comment by Michael Kenward, OBE posted on

    Nice bit of analysis. Thank you.

    Worrying. Yet another sign that businesses are quick to cut R&D when times are bad, just when they need to up their game? Let's hope that Innovate UK is doing more than shouting from the sidelines.

  2. Comment by Robert Chisholm Johnston posted on

    Where are Innovate's subscription to the lesser of expertise in some applicant's in fulfilling the somewhat large ask, of meeting a varied, albeit professional, opinion, on failed submission/s for financial assistance? Application invites ought to be simplified and focus more on Project IP offerings rather than a lack of skill in completing complex forms.
    The IP, especially in its development stages ,in some cases needs advisory help/application assistance simplified, so that it is not 'lost in translation' or lost to the UK where other help is more readily available.
    Sincerely 'Frustrated'