Underpinning research excellence: a case for capital funded projects

Underpinning research excellence: a case for capital funded projects

15 July 2018


As one of Research England’s flagship schemes, the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) has awarded over £680m of capital funds to 43 projects in its first five rounds. Attracting over £1.7bn of co-investment from third party sources, the UKRPIF both enables and enhances long-term strategic collaborations between universities, industry partners, and charitable organisations.

Since 2012 the UKRPIF has awarded funding to twenty five institutions across the UK. Working in partnership with the other UK funding bodies, Research England supports investment in higher education research facilities, where Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) with a significant track record of research excellence can bid for between £10m and £50m form the scheme on the basis that they receive at least double match funding from non-public sources. The portfolio of projects funded under the UKRPIF scheme is wide ranging and often interdisciplinary. To date, Research England has funded projects specialising in high-value manufacturing, health informatics, structural engineering, aerospace technologies, agriculture, as well as projects in the social sciences. The breadth and scope of the projects funded by the UKRPIF exemplifies the diverse research base in the UK.

Providing a new space for research

Just six years after the scheme was first announced by the government in 2012, we are beginning to realise the benefits of the UKRPIF investment. Twenty one projects are now operational, creating new space for academics to work alongside clinicians, industrial partners and local SMEs.

These modes of working harness best practice in knowledge exchange and innovation, breaking down research silos between groups, fostering interdisciplinary and cross-departmental collaborations. Academic staff also work closely with external partners enhancing an organisations’ ability to provide innovative solutions to complex problems, thus translating research beyond academia and strengthening the contribution of the research base to economic growth.

Developing long-term strategic partnerships

One of the underpinning features of the scheme is the ability to build upon existing, and develop new relationships across universities and between industrial partners and charitable organisations. For example, the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) at the University of Swansea has joined FLEXIS, a research collaboration with universities in the South Wales region aimed at the development of an energy systems research capability built on world-class university research. Likewise, the Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (CTIR) at University of Dundee has established research collaborations with HEIs in Scotland and HEIs overseas.

The 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey has built upon its longstanding partnership with major industrial collaborators such as Vodafone and Telefonica as part of the double-match funding requirement of the UKRPIF award. The receipt of public funding and a clear signal of strategic investment through the UKRPIF subsequently acted as an ‘anchor’ attracting additional investment in the facilities. The 5GIC has attracted over £60m of funding from industry partners to date, more than doubling the amount originally committed.

Translational research

The emerging benefits of the research carried out at these new facilities have led to translational research impact leading to benefits in technology, healthcare, and drug discovery. Investment into and creation of new research facilities at King’s College London via the Research and Innovation Hub in Cancer (based at Guy’s Hospital) has increased patient participation in clinical trials by 50 per cent. Patient engagement activities have also grown, largely due to the close proximity of the Hub to patients undergoing treatment at the hospital.

The award of UKRPIF enhanced the drug discovery capability at the Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (University of Dundee). In 2017, and as a result of a decade of work, research teams at the CTIR identified the structure of a key enzyme that protects the brain against Parkinson’s disease.

Emerging economic benefits

One of the main objectives of the UKRPIF is to strengthen the contribution of the research base to economic growth. Although it is too early to measure UKRPIF’s direct contribution to the economy, there are some early indications that the scheme is having a positive impact at a regional level. For example, the High Temperature Research Centre (HTRC) at the University of Birmingham (in partnership with Rolls-Royce) has led to fifty new jobs in the area with six new apprentices taken on every year.

There are a number of cost-saving benefits that come hand-in-hand with large capital awards like the UKRPIF. Not only does it avoid ‘piecemeal’ purchases, allowing for equipment to be bought in a holistic and complementary way, but it also frees up recurrent funding from charitable and industrial partners to invest in research. This approach ensures that partners are invested in research outcomes, which may include the patenting or commercialisation of products, standard-setting, or the establishment of spin-out companies.

International impact

The international reach of the UKRPIF projects is testament to the research excellence of our universities, and many of our projects work collaboratively with universities and organisations outside of the UK. For example, the Big Data Institute at the University of Oxford has attracted £20m from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, a philanthropic organisation with a specific interest in providing funding for healthcare initiatives.

The Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC) at the University of Manchester (scheduled to complete later this year) is a collaborative partnership between Masdar, a major international organisation that has been advancing the development, commercialisation and deployment of cutting-edge solutions in renewable energy for more than a decade.

Importantly, the UKRPIF encourages strategic international partnerships, acting as a driver to forge relationships overseas. Many of our projects are building collaborative relationships with European and global partners – for example through the National Structural Integrity Research Centre (NSIRC), Brunel University London has forged active collaborations with universities in China, Malaysia, Lithuania, and Korea. Increasing international partnerships, as well as growth in staff and student overseas recruitment, is a trend we hope to see grow over the coming years.

Where next?

Earlier this year UK Research and Innovation announced that it will be developing an infrastructure roadmap in order to better understand the facilities, resources and services used by the research and innovation communities. We expect that a number of projects funded by the UKRPIF scheme will feed into this exercise.

With a further £220m available to projects in round six of the competition (currently underway), the UKRPIF continues to act as vehicle to enhance the research facilities of universities undertaking world-leading research in the UK. Universities, industrial partners and charitable organisations will undoubtedly continue to realise the benefits of the capital investment in the years to come. We are also developing a framework to support the full evaluation of the UKRPIF investment and hope to use this alongside the outcomes of this interim review, to make the case for further funding through this scheme. The benefits identified to date already make a pretty convincing case.