Building regional networks

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UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are approaching place and levelling up by focusing on impacts.

As a child growing up in the 1980s, the phrase Level up!’ was synonymous with just one thing – the Super Mario franchise. Now it’s taken on a very different meaning. As a UK government priority, at its core ’levelling up‘ is about reducing inequalities, improving the places we live and boosting economic growth in all our nations and regions.

Covering everything from housing, infrastructures, social and health inequalities through to economic development, levelling up is being tackled across multiple fronts. Research and innovation is seen as a vital part of levelling up, playing a key role in:

  • making firms more productive
  • creating economic growth
  • raising wages.

The recent white paper, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, recognises this and formally tasks UKRI with contributing.

At EPSRC, we took the decision to develop our approach to place three years ago. Since then we have recruited a team of regional engagement managers to diversify our stakeholder engagement and build new relationships with the devolved administrations and other regional bodies, such as local enterprise partnerships and city and growth deals.

Based in our regions and covering seven territories across the UK including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, a key part of our regional engagement ethos is to use local insight and intelligence to inform our national strategy. Working across EPSRC we support colleagues to integrate place and levelling up concepts in forthcoming activities and investments. As a national funder we make our investment decisions by assessing the excellence of research, not by providing allocations to defined geographic regions.

In terms of levelling up both UKRI and EPSRC are taking an impact focus, rather than an inputs focus; but what does this really mean?

For a start, we maintain the procedure method of supporting the highest quality UK research. But increasingly in strategic activities we will look to contribute to levelling up by asking applicants to articulate how their activity aligns with local ambitions and to demonstrate how our investment will make an impact within a place.

It’s worth noting that place impacts aren’t restricted to the immediate proximity of the lead institution; a key theme of our approach to place centres on increasing connectivity of the UK research and development landscape. For us place is as much about contributing to an institution’s immediate locality as it is targeting to have an impact further afield.

Over the coming months, we will be looking to encourage investments that support the development and growth of local industrial clusters, and working to ensure that our skills investments deliver to local needs.

What can institutions do to prepare? Developing civic-academic partnerships is one area likely to be important. Working to achieve a stronger join-up between the civic agenda and universities’ roles in regional innovation ecosystems will position institutions well for future opportunities. It will be crucial to understanding how the universities’ research, skills and knowledge exchange dovetail with industrial cluster activity and the ambitions of civic actors.

Finally, the role of professional research managers and administrators will be to help support the UK’s academics to understand and pivot towards this new agenda. Being able to support applicants to articulate the local value of an activity co-created with civic partners will make an important contribution in delivering success for institutions. In doing so research managers and administrators will not only create valuable contributions to UK science, but also improve the places we live and reduce inequalities across the UK.

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