Putting research in its place

by Alex Hulkes

‘Place’ and accessibility, including access to the knowledge and skills found in the UK’s research organisations, are recurrent themes in the UK’s Industrial Strategy. This makes them important, as the strategy is central to how the government sees future investment and growth in the country’s R&D.

Many of the elements of the strategy, such as the drive to increase investment in R&D to 2.4% of UK GDP by 2027, have been uniformly welcomed. But when it comes to deciding the right emphasis and the nature of the interventions required, differing views are apparent. This is no bad thing: for strategies of this kind it really is true that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

In a recent speech Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, seemed to favour a fairly muscular intervention along the lines found in Germany, citing a need for “an improved [technological] diffusion infrastructure”.

Richard Jones, professor of physics at the University of Sheffield, has identified a similar opportunity alongside many other issues that might also be addressed. Among them, he describes the geographic distribution of funding for research in the UK as an “extraordinary and unhealthy concentration of publicly funded R&D in a relatively small part of the country”.

Here is where I duck out of the policy discussion. My role is more on the analysis and data side, and the point of this article is to set out a couple of things that might help illuminate this particular debate.

A picture of concentration

Wikipedia assures me that Oxford is the UK’s oldest university, and that in the 900 or so years since it was founded the number of universities in the UK has increased to about 130. As an aside, can I highlight the rather lovely fact that the third university to be given permission to exist in the UK was the University of Northampton, in 1261? Henry III changed his mind when someone told him that the University of Oxford was not very pleased.

But getting back to the present day, across the UK there are now nearly 250 research organisations that are eligible to receive funding of one kind or another from a UK research council. Most are public sector or not-for-profit organisations. The image below shows where they are, and also the number of them found within 100 kilometres of each of about 4,500 points, which together produce a map of the UK. This is just one way to represent the density and ‘place’ of just one element of the UK research effort.


Very superficially this already seems to fit the bill of the Industrial Strategy: “Our third challenge is to build research and innovation excellence across the UK.” There are very few places in the UK that aren’t within 100km of at least one research organisation and those organisations tend to be pretty good on the excellence front.

Indeed, the picture is in some ways slightly richer than the map suggests, as it includes only one location for multi-site organisations such as University of the Highlands and Islands, or the University of Brighton. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the greatest concentration of research organisations is found in the south-east of England.

Really, the question of the moment is more whether the pattern is the right one. In one way at least it does seem rather apposite. An equivalent map of UK population density looks qualitatively similar, suggesting that in general research organisations are found where people are. However, this is just one factor in the ‘rightness’ discussion, and further it is one that we can’t assume to be what is actually desired.

All is not golden…

One way to bring about change would simply be to build new research capability in places thought to be deficient. But I am not sure that many would think it sensible to do so with no supporting infrastructure or people to bring it to life (Fordlandia anyone?)

If a new landscape is required, then changes to the distribution of resource across the current spread of organisations would be far easier to implement. This leads us to the question of research concentration and the golden triangle.

It is true that the organisations that make up the golden triangle receive a lot of government funding. It is also true that they are quite large institutions, which might, for that reason alone, be expected to receive a lot of funding.

What may or may not be true is that the UK could do better if such institutions were not so large relative to the environment (human, economic, cultural, technological) in which they sit. This isn’t the place to discuss this particular issue. We should look instead at the performance of the institutions in the triangle.

Interestingly, these universities do not have unusually high Research Councils UK research-grant success rates (see chart).


Organisations falling within the dotted lines that produce the funnel in the diagram (it’s called a funnel plot for that reason) have ‘normal’ success rates. They sit in the range of rates we might see if they had the expected success rate for an organisation submitting that number of proposals, allowing for a bit of noise. None of the golden triangle organisations has an unusually high success rate. In fact, if anything, two of them are a bit low. The only unusual triangle is closer to the rhubarb triangle than anywhere else: Durham, Lancaster and York have done rather well.

The chart also shows that organisations that submit more proposals tend to have higher success rates (or perhaps vice versa). This seems to be something that is baked in. But it is not a regional phenomenon or driven by group membership, at least not directly—it’s something to do with scale. Should or could anything be done about this? It’s clear that there’s further unpicking to be done as we think about intensity and place and try to make the strategy a reality.

This blog originally appeared as an article on the Research Professional website.

alex-hulkes-150Alex Hulkes is the strategic lead for the Insights team at the ESRC, part of UK Research and Innovation. He originally joined the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council before moving to the ESRC in 2016. He is responsible for developing the ESRC’s ability to evaluate and carry out data-informed analysis of its investments, policy and operation.

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