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Ottoline Leyser: UKRI’s mission is to connect

Image: Thor Nielsen/NTNU [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr 

Agency will foster an embedded, collaborative and empowering research and innovation system, says Ottoline Leyser

In this uncertain time, one thing is clear. Research and innovation will play a central role in the future of communities across the UK. They can be a cornerstone in rebuilding a stronger economy and a more cohesive society. 

Research and innovation are national strengths. In a world facing economic, health and climate pressures, they are central to the UK’s wellbeing, economy and prosperity. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has the opportunity to ensure that research and innovation mean much more, to many more.

Research and innovation reflect a human characteristic—an ability to harness the power of problem-solving, which everyone can contribute to and benefit from. That is our vision for research and innovation at the heart of a UK knowledge economy.

The government’s R&D roadmap, and its commitment to a record increase in public investment, strengthen this opportunity and set out a national ambition UKRI will work to realise. 

We are stewards of a system made up of people, culture, infrastructure and connectivity. UKRI’s mission is to work with others to support the system with the right investments and incentives, and through convening and catalysing interactions to harness our collective strengths. 

We will draw on our networks to deepen connections between disciplines and sectors, and to strengthen bonds with communities and society as a whole. A research and innovation system embedded in society, through which people and ideas flow, can build connections between research, innovation, development and adoption, increasing cohesion and addressing inequalities. 

Agile working

The response to coronavirus illustrates our ability to work together in more agile and connected ways, from developing vaccine candidates and establishing long-term studies through to accelerating innovative ways to bring cultural experiences into people’s lives and homes. 

One of my first challenges as chief executive is to ensure I am engaged with people right across the UK, deepening mutual understanding and creating a culture in which connection is valued and prioritised. 

UKRI has strong foundations. Our councils have a rich understanding of their domains and deep relationships with universities, institutes and businesses across the UK. Combined with the work done to establish UKRI, this enables us to operate across research and innovation and connect it to wider stakeholders. 

Realising the system’s potential means setting aside divisive dichotomies such as blue skies vs applied research, excellence vs place-based investment, higher vs further education, or science vs the humanities and social sciences. 

We must create a collective resolve to build an integrated system, with each part benefitting from and supporting the others. This requires a focus on true diversity. Addressing the biggest questions requires capturing the power of diversity and challenge. 

Within this, there is much to do. We must address systemic injustices such as racism, brought into sharp focus in recent months. The pandemic has laid longstanding inequalities bare. 

UKRI is also acutely aware of Covid-19’s impacts on the sector. We are engaged with researchers, universities, businesses and charities, working to support the sector as flexibly and responsively as possible. 

Leaving the European Union will bring big changes, but research is inherently international, collaboration is essential, and there is a clear and collective recognition of these principles across our global community and from the UK government. We will champion the collaboration and expertise needed to tackle the world’s greatest challenges and we will work with the government to support this endeavour. 

People will always be the heart of research and innovation. We will help all career stages, especially early career, to reach their potential and develop the skills they need, from data analytics to leadership.

But research and innovation involve many more people than researchers and innovators. We will support the technicians, archivists, project managers and IT support staff, to name just a few on whom the system depends. And we will engage deeply with the wider public, with whom and for whom the system functions. 

We will steward a culture where people work together in open and creative ways, engaging with the broadest range of voices.

Our opportunity is to connect our research creativity and innovation with inclusive economic and social benefit, to connect the ability to research and innovate with people across the UK, and create a system that is embedded, collaborative and empowering. It is an inspiring opportunity. Working together, I am confident we will seize it.

Ottoline Leyser is chief executive of UK Research and Innovation

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight