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UK government backs collaboration by universities on innovative 'Arrow Projects'

Encouraging universities to work together and with local industry and funding partners on innovative 'Arrow Projects' is the best way to harness their global reputation for science and research in support of economic growth, the UK government has said.

However, it will not implement Sir Andrew Witty's recommendation to replace existing funding streams with a single 'one-stop shop' for funding for these collaborative projects, according to its response to the businessman's review of universities and economic growth.

"Collaboration across funding bodies and funding streams has improved substantially in the last few years," said David Willetts, the Universities Minister, in the government's response to Witty's original report, which was published in October.

"Nevertheless, we accept Sir Andrew's conclusion that more can be done to simplify the funding landscape for businesses and researchers. To develop proposals on how to do this while preserving the key strengths of our existing funding structures, BIS will facilitate discussions between RCUK, HEFCE, the Technology Strategy Board, UKTI, representatives from universities, the British Business Bank and the LEP Network - all of whom have a role in identifying, nurturing, growing and delivering on our comparative advantages with public funding," he said.

Witty also recommended that central government funding for the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) be increased from £160 million to £250m a year, while the funding allocation method should be reviewed to incentivise engagement with SMEs. However, the government has said that it is "unable to commit" to raising the level of this funding "in the current tight fiscal environment".

An expert in research and innovation as chief executive of leading life sciences firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Witty had been commissioned by the government to report on how English universities could better support local economic growth and drive exports. His final report made a number of recommendations, which included reviewing current funding arrangements in order to better target resources to particular research and technology streams, rather than individual institutions.

The creation of collaborative 'Arrow Projects', supported by a new central government funding stream, was a central recommendation of the report. In its response, the government has committed to taking forward the concept while retaining existing funding streams. As envisaged by Witty, Arrow Projects would involve cutting-edge technologies or inventions in which the UK has a promising lead, led by an 'arrow tip' of universities with expertise in that particular area working with an 'arrow head' of associated economic activity.

The team involved in Arrow Projects would not be based on postcode or location, but rather by type of technology such as quantum computing or advanced material. Economic partners could include industrial and supply chain partners and economic partners, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Given its work on identifying and investing in the 'Eight Great Technologies' where the UK already has research expertise, the government said that it did not "need to start from first principles" when establishing this new approach. However, these priorities should and would not "set in stone our current perception of key future sectors and technologies", it said in its response.

The response includes a "long term commitment to supporting universities" in a 'third mission' to deliver economic growth, alongside existing research and education priorities. However, the government will not ask universities to report on progress annually so that it does not "add to the regulatory burden on universities". Instead it will use existing information-gathering processes to monitor progress, and ask Universities UK to convene an annual event to consider notable 'third mission' successes and impediments.

The government also intends to create a new Advisory Hub for Smart Specialisation in order to encourage and support LEPs to share best practice when developing local research and innovation proposals. This facility, as recommended by Witty, will allow government, LEPs and other stakeholders to base proposals on a sound assessment of comparative advantage.

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