The big picture: the UK’s thriving science community

9th February 2017

Eugene Sayers, Sheppard Robson’s head of science, was invited by Building magazine to discuss the UK’s science industry and the big challenges it faces with impending political changes. The article has been published on the magazine's website and can be read here or in full below.

The UK’s world-class science facilities and thriving community are vital to the construction industry and the economy as a whole, writes Eugene Sayers, so it is important that the sector is supported through the changes Brexit brings.

Scientific research has been a cornerstone of the UK’s strategy for some time, with continued and patient investment creating a brilliant place for scientific discovery. In recent months, the government has mooted significant funding for science that looks to shore up the industry in the face of Brexit and the possible loss of EU funding. But should we also be looking at the bigger picture?

The research industry has historically been divided into two parts: privately-funded research and development (R&D) carried out by industries such as chemicals, food, pharmaceuticals and aviation, and publicly-funded academic research. The latter has traditionally taken place in universities or associated institutes and is funded by the government, mainly via Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). There has also been significant funding from Europe in the form of Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation.

In the last year, the UK could be said to have received more than its fair share of EU funding, totalling an estimated £1.55bn a year according to figures from the Campaign for Science and Engineering. And this has been a long-standing source of funding, with the EU contributing around €8.8bn (£7.5bn) between 2007 and 2013, against the €5.4bn contribution the UK sends to the EU for science funding. This – coupled with a ring-fenced government annual budget of £5.9bn, with around 25% of this committed to capital expenditure – has meant the science sector has been an important client for the architecture, engineering and construction industries.

It is reassuring to the industry that the government is tabling a £2bn annual fund for scientific research and development to protect the sector against the effects of Brexit. Or, in the words of the prime minster, “stepping up, not stepping back”. This £2bn, coupled with tax incentives for innovative corporations, looks like an appealing sum when viewed next the current level of EU funding above. To me, this does show ambition, but is funding alone enough to maintain the UK’s leading position in science?

To answer this requires an understanding of what makes the UK a great place for science, in particular, how close bonds have been forged between increasingly entrepreneurial universities, healthcare and commercial partners.

This rich mix of opportunity, along with a vibrant metropolitan lifestyle, has been a winning formula. The recently-tabled funding structures are attractive but we also need to protect other aspects of the delicate science ecosystem, which relies on attracting and retaining the best talent from around the world. Researchers come to the UK not just for funding but also the sense of community, knowing that they will be working alongside the best minds in the world with cities such as London and Manchester providing great places to live as a backdrop to research.

The nature of science developments in our cities has changed. No longer located solely in peripheral industrial parks and rural campuses, scientific facilities have also become part of our urban communities. Think about the Francis Crick Institute’s impact on the redevelopment of King’s Cross in London or Corridor Manchester’s effect on the city centre. This renewed urban status of science facilities has resulted in architecture and construction briefs becoming even more ambitious and complex, with our sector having to develop a deep understanding of the issues – from technical requirements to lifestyle choices – that affect science’s ability integrate into our cities.

This combination of demanding technical criteria and highly complex social and civic briefs has driven design and construction standards forward; let’s not underestimate the cultural impact that science’s spirit of progress has on our industry. Like the scientists themselves, architects, engineers and contractors have acquired new skillsets in designing and delivering the highly controlled and specialist environments. The intense collaboration and integration of design and construction has prompted new ways of working.

There is a lot on the line, not just for the culture of innovation or bottom line of the construction industry. Science is inextricably linked to the success of other industries in which the UK leads the way. If universities lose their ability to attract talent, there could be knock-on effects to the UK-based medical research and pharmaceutical industries and the delicately balanced science ecosystem could be thrown out of equilibrium.

Finally, the UK’s strategy of maintaining its leading position in science cannot just focus on large sums of investment. It will need to incorporate a human angle, not least a clear position on visas. Let’s remember, the best facilities are only as good as the minds that work in them.