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Witty review team considers recommending impact expansion

The recommendations from a UK government commissioned review of how universities can support economic growth could include increasing the weighting for impact in the Research Excellence Framework from 20 per cent to 25 per cent.

Research Fortnight understands that such a recommendation is understood to have been included in an early draft of the review, led by Andrew Witty, chief executive of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Whether it survives in the final document will be known when it is published on 15 October.

The review was commissioned in the spring of 2013. Some of its findings were published in preliminary form in July 2013.

Robin Webb, head of the Witty review team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, discussed the process of the review and its broad outlines in a presentation at the annual conference of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, held on 10  and 11 October in Cardiff.

He said that the final version would make 10 major recommendations and was prepared by Witty with input from seven independent advisers, a group that includes “a strong university presence”. He said that the team had been expecting to have completed the review by the time of the conference, but as this had not been possible, he was not in a position to provide even hints of what the document recommends.

According to preliminary findings, the review explores how universities can harness their research and other outputs to work with regional organisations such as the UK’s 39 Local Enterprise Partnerships to support growth.

The review’s premise is that “Universities should be central to future prosperity of the country because they’re central to the development of comparative advantage,” Webb said. It comes, according to Webb, after what Witty considered “years of disappointing policy in promoting regional growth”.

Discussing what was learned in carrying out the review, Webb stressed that developing a reliable set of data about where research and economic activity are taking place in the UK is important, but also difficult. “If we believe universities are an economic asset then clarity about what is where seems desirably axiomatically,” he said. An important question, he said, was “How do we get to a place where we can make good maps?”

The findings from July included a set of more than 40 ‘heat maps’, intended to represent UK regions that are home to strong economic activity or research in areas related to the government’s industrial strategy, or to universities that perform strongly in STEM subjects. One delegate at the conference pointed out that the maps were based on weak data and therefore could not be a reliable indicator for policymakers. Webb said that the Witty team received a lot of input about what was missing from the draft maps, but that getting advice on a robust method for making the maps was harder. And in addition to improving methodology, he said there was work to be done in mapping out relevant business and charity spending along with the research council spending.

Witty’s review could support an expansion of the popular and highly effective Higher Education Innovation Fund, which promotes the translation of academic research into economic and social impacts. Other areas the review will consider include research with strong potential for industrial take-up.