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Innovation after lockdown ‘should support those left behind’

Nesta argues public R&D funds must go to poorer regions and sectors

An innovation-based recovery from Covid-19 must avoid the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw richer areas and sectors recover better and faster than poorer ones, according to Nesta.

In a report published on 22 June, the innovation charity argues that extra public funding for R&D promised in the March budget needs to address longstanding regional inequalities and support “vital but struggling sectors” such as social care.

‘Levelling-up’ so-called ‘left behind’ areas of the country has become a central rhetoric of the current government. And multiple policy experts have come out to say R&D funding should be a driver of this, not least by channelling more of this spending away from the traditional powerhouse institutions of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

“The UK’s innovation system is an enormous asset and has the potential to foster more general economic and societal resilience in the face of future disruptions,” said Madeleine Gabriel, head of inclusive innovation at Nesta and co-author of the report.

“But this potential is squandered as long as it remains undirected and confined to a handful of sectors and parts of the country. Now, more than ever, we need a more inclusive approach to innovation.”

In the report, Gabriel and her colleague and co-author Harry Farmer, say that innovation policy could rebuild left-behind regions and drive up living standards for millions of workers. They argue that such policies that spread innovation and its benefits more widely will lead to an economy that is “stronger and better placed to weather future shocks”. 

Their suggestions include:

  • devolving a significant proportion of public R&D funding to the nations, regions and cities
  • actively guiding innovation in the public interest and embracing a mission-led approach to R&D
  • setting up regional offices for the government’s UK Research and Innovation funder
  • making data on regional and sector spending of public R&D money more transparent
  • funding innovation to improve pay and resilience for frontline workers and sectors
  • investing more to help innovation to diffuse across the economy