UK must com­pete with US and Asia on re­search trans­la­tion, v-c warns

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Holly.else@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

A new mem­ber of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Coun­cil for Science and Tech­nol­ogy has said that the UK is at risk of “be­ing left be­hind by the rise of Asia” if it does not de­velop more part­ner­ships with industry to trans­late re­search find­ings.

Max Lu, the China-born pres­i­dent and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Uni­ver­sity of Sur­rey, said that the coun­try will face an “ever in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion for tal­ent” from Asian coun­tries that are at­tract­ing their aca­demic di­as­pora to re­turn home.

Brexit, and the fu­ture of the UK’s im­mi­gra­tion regime, present an­other key is­sue when it comes to the UK’s abil­ity to at­tract re­search tal­ent.

Pro­fes­sor Lu is one of five new mem­bers of the coun­cil, which ad­vises Theresa May on strate­gic science and tech­nol­ogy pol­icy. The group meets sev­eral times a year to dis­cuss is­sues that cut across the re­mits of in­di­vid­ual govern­ment de­part­ments, such as re­search ca­pa­bil­ity, in­no­va­tion and the econ­omy, and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment and re­silience.

The 21-strong group re­ports di­rectly to the prime min­is­ter and also ad­vises her on what the govern­ment’s high-level pri­or­i­ties for science and tech­nol­ogy should be.

Talk­ing to Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion fol­low­ing his ap­point­ment to the coun­cil, Pro­fes­sor Lu said that the UK should fo­cus on its in­dus­trial strat­egy.

“In terms of science and tech­nol­ogy pol­icy we need to first pre­serve our his­tor­i­cal strengths, which is sci­en­tific ex­cel­lence [and] that means the tal­ent com­ing in,” he said.

“Se­condly, we need to look at how to in­crease in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion so we can get in­ward in­vest­ment for com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion of our re­search out­comes,” he added.

Pro­fes­sor Lu, who is a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer and nan­otech­nol­o­gist, said that the UK is in a “weaker po­si­tion in terms of the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of good ideas” compared with the USA.

“We don’t have as many high­tech com­pa­nies as in Amer­ica and that is a fact. We need to learn how we are go­ing to have more part­ner­ships to lever­age our strong sci­en­tific ba­sis in terms of…turn­ing the ideas from bench to bed­side – for clin­i­cal [re­search] – or lab­o­ra­tory to mar­ket,” he said.

He added that the new UK Re­search and In­no­va­tion body has a “key role to play in terms of how to op­ti­mise our re­sources and to lever­age fund­ing the govern­ment has put on the ta­ble to re­ally gen­er­ate more im­pact and to re­ally ben­e­fit our econ­omy”.

“The stakes are very high. We will be left be­hind by the rise of Asia. For ex­am­ple, China, In­dia and South East Asian coun­tries are in­vest­ing so much in science and tech­nol­ogy,” Pro­fes­sor Lu warned.

These coun­tries are now “in­creas­ingly at­tract­ing” ex­pa­tri­ate re­searchers back to their home coun­tries, he added.

“We are faced with ever-in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion for tal­ent. If we don’t fo­cus on these things it will prob­a­bly grad­u­ally lose our lead­ing po­si­tion and our univer­si­ties will prob­a­bly weaken in league ta­bles,” he said.

Pro­fes­sor Lu added that he “fully em­braces” the changes that will come with the for­ma­tion of UKRI, which will bring all seven of the UK’s re­search fund­ing coun­cils into one um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for the first time.

“UKRI will have great po­ten­tial to fa­cil­i­tate and co­or­di­nate the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions across dis­ci­plines,” he said, adding that the or­gan­i­sa­tion will make the out­come of re­search in­vest­ment “much greater than the sum of all the in­di­vid­ual parts”.

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