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Blog: Director’s Diary

From welcoming the Government’s Levelling Up Taskforce to the region, to joining the British Academy’s Early Career Researchers Network Advisory Board. MI Director, Dr Helen Turner, blogs about these and other recent initiatives that she has been involved in representing the partnership.

Despite the fact that we have had two public bank holidays in quick succession since my last Director’s Diary blog in early April 2022, it has been a busy and productive few weeks for myself and the teams that support the Midlands Innovation partnership, our research programmes and collaborative networks. I got to witness this first-hand when I attended the MI Flow Cytometry Conference - an annual meeting of those working in Flow Cytometry across our eight partners. It was great to see collaboration in action and my thanks go to MI Executive Assistant, Ellen McGhee, MI Marketing Manager, Sarah Howells, and to Dr David Onion and Prof Lucy Fairclough for overseeing the success of the event on the day. You can read more about the conference here.
I am grateful that I and a colleague, Jerel Whittingham, were given the opportunity to raise the untapped opportunity there is in the Midlands when it comes to attracting business investment when we met with representatives of the Government’s Office for Investment.

The Midlands is the home to 11% of the UK’s high growth businesses, but only secured 5% of the £13.5 billion invested in private UK businesses in 2020; as highlighted in a report undertaken by Beauhurst, which tracks the UK’s high-growth companies and is utilised by some of the UK’s biggest investment banks. Their Investment Opportunities in the Midlands report highlights that the region is ripe for investment. If the Government wishes to level up the country, ensuring that investment is attracted into regions beyond London and the South East, will be a key component. We are starting to explore collaborative solutions to this as a partnership.

With regards to levelling up, I was pleased to help facilitate a visit of the Government’s Levelling up Taskforce to the region, and to participate in a discussion on regional priorities and levelling up R&D, which took place as part of their visit to the University of Nottingham. I also had an opportunity to discuss regional priorities when I deputised for Professor Trevor McMillan, Chair of Midlands Innovation, at an Executive Board meeting of the Midlands Engine - the pan-regional growth body.

In the meeting, which was chaired by, Sir John Peace, Chairman of the Midlands Engine, I was able highlight the fantastic work we are doing as Midlands Innovation working with other stakeholders to develop a pilot to increase Foreign Direct Investment into R&D. The Midlands Engine are compiling a prospectus of investment priorities for the Midlands, and it was great to see that Space Park Leicester, the University of Birmingham Health Innovation Campus, and Loughborough Science and Enterprise Park all feature in the emerging priorities.

I have also been busy promoting the work of our Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) and the recommendations of the TALENT Commission.

I was able showcase ERA as an example of place-based research at an ARMA webinar on Place and the Impact Agenda.  I shared the impact ERA has had in the Midlands, and used it as an example to highlight that to build successful place-based projects it is critical to align to regional strengths, have strong leadership, and include partners from the start. Projects need this alignment and to work with partners to ensure outputs are adopted and that they are making a real impact.

I was also able to make a wider point that funding mechanisms for considering place-based programmes such as ERA need to be strengthened. ERA, for example, has the backing of 40 businesses, organisations, LEPs and local authorities in the region, but due to scale of funding it is seeking to match the ambitions of its regional collaborators, there isn’t a readymade route for public funding. The Government has said it wants to level up R&D funding and use public sector investment to unlock private sector investment, but currently there isn’t a fund available which ERA can bid into. This is despite demonstrating that it was able to leverage 9:1 private sector investment, for every pound of public sector backing it received, and it having private sector partners queueing up collaborate on future projects if public sector funding can be secured.

I was also invited to speak at a meeting of the Russell Group’s Research Directors to highlight the TALENT Commission and its findings. The TALENT Commission sets out a vision for the future of the UK's technical talent and includes 16 overarching recommendations to guide delivery of this vision, as well as a series of targeted recommendations. We are keen to ensure that the recommendations are adopted as widely as possible, and this is one of a number of meetings that myself, the Commissioners, and the TALENT Project Lead are having to help raising awareness of the Commission’s findings and opportunities to embed recommendations. If these were adopted, they would not only support the career development of the higher education and research sector’s technical community, but would also help the country to achieve ‘science superpower’ status.  

At Midlands Innovation we are passionate about advocating for and recognising all of those who undertake and support research, so it is an honour to be invited by the British Academy Early Career Researchers Network to become a member of its Advisory Board. The Board met for the first time this month (May 2022), and as well as being a real privilege to work with the British Academy, it is even more to do so on such an important initiative.