The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound and devastating effects on societies and economies around the world. The response to the health crisis highlighted the critical importance of productive and effective partnerships between companies, universities, research institutes, public sector agencies, hospitals, charities and others in developing innovative solutions to very urgent problems. Looking forward, such innovation-driven partnerships must be at the heart of approaches to driving economic recoveries and renewal from the pandemic at the global, national and local level.
A strong and resilient system of universities, research institutes and technology development organisations, working in close partnership with the private and public sectors will be crucial to driving an innovation-led economic recovery. However, while there is increasing evidence that the pandemic has caused significant disruption to business R&D and innovation activities, we know much less about how it is affecting universities and their ability to contribute to innovation through the crisis.
In this report we explore this issue in depth. We draw on the responses of sixty-one senior UK university leaders with responsibilities for their knowledge exchange, innovation and commercialisation to a survey distributed in August/September 2020.
The findings reveal in detail the significant disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on the many activities of universities that help to drive innovation in the economy. Many UK universities experienced innovation projects being delayed or reduced in scale or scope. Activities with sectors such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing and the creative industries are particularly badly affected. These disruptions could have long-lasting effects on the competitiveness of key strategic UK industries.
Key headline findings include:
- More than half of UK universities reported that their innovation activities with aerospace and automotive manufacturing firms had decreased by at least 20%
- Nearly half (45%) of universities saw declines of at least a 6% in the overall level of innovation activities they have with industrial partners
- 88% of UK universities experiencing declines in activity cited a significant proportion of innovation projects had been delayed; nearly half (48%) of these universities reported the scale and scope of projects were being reduced; and more than a third (36%) saw a significant proportion being cancelled
- The lack of financial resources to support collaborations, insufficient government funding to leverage for such activities and the current inability to access the necessary facilities and equipment for work to continue are reasons behind these changes
The report reveals the importance of building long-term strategic university-industry. These relationships are proving much more resilient than non-strategic interactions.
The report concludes by examining areas where the UK government could act to ensure that the UK university system is able to contribute fully and strategically to economic recovery and renewal, both nationally and locally.
Commenting on the report:
Tomas Ulrichsen, Director of the new University Commercialisation and Innovation Policy Evidence Unit at the University of Cambridge, who led the study and authored the report said: “The new findings released today show that Covid-19 has had a hugely disruptive impact on universities and their ability to continue to contribute to innovation through the current health and economic crisis. We have seen the transformational effects of universities and businesses working together in finding practical and innovative solutions to wicked societal problems. This is why the findings of our study are so worrying. A strong, resilient and sustainable system of universities, research institutes and technology development organisations, working in close partnership with the private, charitable, and public sectors will be crucial to driving an innovation-led economic recovery and tackling other critical and urgent global challenges. Unless we proactively tackle the many challenges facing universities and their innovation partners to reverse these worrying trends, we risk not only hampering our economic recovery but also the UK’s longer-term competitiveness in key sectors.”
Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of NCUB said: “Covid-19 has brought the importance of collaboration between academia and industry firmly into public awareness. Indeed, breakthroughs such as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine are only possible because years of combined research. This is why the new survey data released today is so worrisome. Nearly 90% of universities have been forced to delay a significant proportion (more than 10%) of new innovation projects with external partners, and over a third have reported that projects have been cancelled.”
Marshall continued: “Maintaining these types of innovation projects is vital if we are to boost productivity, improve livelihoods, and drive forward economic recovery. Innovation requires collaboration. And we see time and time again that collaboration requires strong partners. We are therefore calling on the Government to take proactive steps to help companies stay afloat and investing in R&D through the crisis. This includes extending Covid-19 support schemes and postponing repayment of loans until lockdown restrictions are significantly eased. In no uncertain terms, for the UK to emerge from this crisis stronger, we need to encourage innovation. Driving an innovative economy, through tax incentives, effective regulation and well-targeted support schemes must be a fundamental component of the March 2021 Budget. We need to see action now, before it’s too late.”