Universities and innovation beyond the pandemic

Investigating how universities are adapting to major shocks in the innovation landscape and their ability to drive an innovation-led economic recovery post-Covid

"As the UK begins the long road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government is in the process of setting out important goals for the future competitiveness of the UK, raising levels of R&D and innovation, addressing productivity challenges, and levelling up economic prosperity. Universities have critical roles to play in each of these areas. To understand where and how policy can help, it is important that we have up-to-date evidence on how the significant disruptions to the socio-economic and innovation landscapes in recent years have affected universities and their ability to respond to, and contribute to, these goals.


This study builds on the August 2020 survey conducted jointly by the University Commercialisation and Innovation Policy Evidence Unit (UCI) at the University of Cambridge and the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB). It will provide crucial evidence of the ongoing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and will inform UKRI’s understanding of the key issues and how it develops its funding programme and support for the sector moving forward."


David Sweeney, Executive Chair, Research England






The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound and devastating effects on societies and economies around the world.  Ensuring a strong and resilient system of universities, research institutes and technology development organisations, working in close partnership with the private and public sectors, are key elements of the UK Government’s plans for an innovation-led economic recovery. 


Looking across the recent R&D and innovation-related plans published by the UK Government, it is clear there is a growing trend towards the following:

  • A growing focus on mission-led and challenge-led programmes to address complex societal and industrial innovation challenges
  • A greater emphasis on developing and commercialising emerging technologies to drive industries of the future
  • Investing in not just world-leading research but also the ability of translate and commercialise R&D into innovative applications
  • Working to strengthen the UK innovation ecosystem to ‘unleash’ the potential of businesses to innovate, increase the adoption and diffusion of innovations, and address the long-standing stagnation in productivity growth
  • Developing, attracting and retaining the workforce required to underpin the UK’s ability to undertake R&D and innovation
  • Strengthening the R&D and innovation infrastructure within the UK to innovate
  • A greater emphasis on investing in R&D and innovation through a place-based lens


While we have evidence of the scale of disruption caused by the initial phases of the pandemic on the innovation activities of universities (UCI/NCUB, 2021), we know much less about how the ongoing crisis, coupled with other major shifts to the economic, industrial and political landscapes, is affecting the longer term strategic priorities of universities as we look towards the economic recovery.  As the world changes rapidly around us, we also know little about the ability of universities, as organisations, to adapt and reconfigure on the ground to meet emerging opportunities and threats.




Project aims


This project will investigate:

  • How demand for university R&D and innovation-focused activities has changed compared with pre-pandemic and the key drivers of change
  • How universities are adapting to the rapidly changing socio-economic and industrial landscapes and the extent to which this will enable them to play an active and strategic role in driving an innovation-led economic recovery and future competitiveness of the UK.
  • The extent to which universities have the necessary capabilities and resources to adapt successfully to the new reality


The project will involve a survey across all UK universities to compliment and augment findings from the 2020 survey, and a series of case studies involving a stratified sample of universities across the nations and regions of the UK to develop a richer understanding of the drivers, opportunities and challenges associated with innovation-focused activities vital for pandemic recovery.

For further information please contact:

Tomas Ulrichsen

T: 01223339741

E: tc267@cam.ac.uk

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