International collaboration is the bedrock of research and innovation (R&I). It is also vital to tackling the global challenges we face today, a point underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UK Government understands the importance of this. Indeed it has highlighted its ambitions of ensuring the UK remains a world leader in R&I through the launch of the Research and Development (R&D) Roadmap.

Dr Sandeep Sandhu is the Knowledge Transfer Manager for International & Development at KTN, with a considerable background in international strategy and policy; she previously worked at UKRI and the Medical Research Council, leading on facilitating R&I collaborations with key economies around the world.  Drawing on her knowledge and experience, Dr Sandhu considers the Roadmap and what needs to be addressed if it’s to be successfully implemented.

The Roadmap refers to three broad priority areas relating to international collaboration:

  • An agile approach to global collaboration
  • Supporting new and growing existing collaborations
  • UK leadership in multilateral forums

Having analysed the Roadmap, I can see a number of things which need to be considered if it’s to deliver the Government’s international R&I ambitions for the UK.

First, a more simplified R&I landscape is critical to ensuring the UK’s offer of funding, support and relationship brokering is clear to both domestic businesses and to those international partners considering engagement with the UK.

There needs to be a toolbox approach to the funding of international collaboration. That means building on existing mechanisms and curating new ones where they are needed. This approach would guarantee the most appropriate mechanism is used for the right context and would encourage both the UK and global R&I communities to collaborate. It would also further mobilise public, private, philanthropic and direct foreign investment capital for global R&I activities. Blended funding approaches would demonstrate agility and responsiveness. For example, blending official development assistance (ODA) funding with non-ODA funds would enable impactful collaborations which don’t fit in a specific ‘box’ to be supported rather than purely defining collaborations based on ringfenced funds.

The protection of intellectual property (IP) is another key consideration. Protecting an international collaboration is such an important and complex area that it may act as a barrier to innovators, deterring their global aspirations. That’s because other nations approach this differently. The UK would benefit from understanding these differences and specifically how research and innovation IP is protected in other countries. This would help ensure effective and safe collaboration. Furthermore, agreed framework agreements on IP sharing and protection, through bilateral/multilateral deals with partnering countries, would help to alleviate these barriers.

Support needed

Beyond this, I see three broad areas where the Government needs to provide support and develop collaborations.

There needs to be renewed focus internationally, particularly with our European partners in a post-Brexit environment. Although providing financial support for EU collaboration is welcome, it will not be sufficient to solidify R&I collaborations with European partners. Further support will be needed to ensure that we remain well networked within the European R&I ecosystem and that new and strong relationships are brokered with EU innovators.

The Government also needs to ensure UK businesses benefit from our renowned academic record. These benefits must be widely shared, leveraged and translated into business collaboration opportunities with international partners.

Work also needs to be done between Government bodies, ensuring that a coherent strategy is shared. Several agencies work within the R&I space. These include the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade, UK Research & Innovation, the Science and Innovation Network and the newly formed Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office. Such agencies need to work in concert, building upon academic partnerships to help facilitate and build alliances for our business communities. To achieve this, their capacity needs to be strengthened and approaches aligned.

Looking internationally, the UK has demonstrated strong leadership in multilateral forums. It needs to build on this to support and nurture future collaborative opportunities. This should be done through scaling up public spending on bi-lateral and multi-lateral funding programmes such as Eureka. Doing this would increase the UK’s international credibility as a nation looking to collaborate in R&D.

Conclusion

UK R&I continues to be an evolving and dynamic landscape. However, if the issues and areas I’ve discussed are focused on, the UK will be better equipped to realise the Roadmap’s ambitions, collaborate globally, and remain a world leader in research and innovation.