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Levelling up - Queen's role in Northern Ireland’s Economic Recovery

Nesta’s ‘The Missing £4Billion- Making R&D work for the whole of the UK’ report highlights not only how far the UK lags behind other countries in terms of Research and Development Investment, but also that R&D spending within the UK is regionally unbalanced.

Both of these factors result in the UK's productivity gap, making our economic bounce back from the current pandemic even more difficult. Northern Ireland is challenged as it must increase both its public sector and private investment in R&D to reach the level of other areas of the UK.  In my role as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Queen’s University, I am responsible for matters relating to regional development, and so this challenge is foremost in my mind, and why I took the opportunity feed into and draw from the report.

Northern Ireland would require an additional £250million to achieve the per capita spend on R&D seen in London, the South East, and East of England. This is a significant investment at a time when we are coming to terms with the economic implications of COVID-19, alongside understanding the economic impact of the UK’s changing relationship with the European Union. It's clear that we are facing a time of unprecedented political and economic uncertainties and that Northern Ireland will be tested more severely as a result of the combination of these factors.

Indeed the COVID-19 Business Impact Report published by Beauhurst highlights that Northern Ireland is particularly exposed with a high proportion of companies likely to be severely and critically impacted. Yet we can also take solace as the same report suggests that Northern Ireland is home to a large proportion of high growth businesses which are potentially positively impacted by the crisis, second only to London.

Universities have a critical role to play in ‘levelling-up’, addressing regional inequalities, as they have demonstrated a long-running growth effect on their local economies. The ‘levelling up’ agenda is essential for UK economic recovery and for the benefit of Northern Ireland, and I have been pressing the case for this locally and nationally. Queen’s is playing a full role in ensuring that existing, and future, R&D spend is most efficiently converted into positive economic impact.


Chart: Spending on R&D by NUTS1 region within the UK, 2016 (split by market-led (business) and non-market-led (government, university and charity))

Regional Distribution of UK R&D spending by NUTS1 region, expressed per resident for the market-led and non-market-led sectors. Source: Nesta ‘The Missing £4Billion- Making R&D work for the whole of the UK’  -May 2020

Queen’s as an Agent for Economic Development 

Queen’s makes a significant contribution to Northern Ireland and the UK economy, contributing  £1.9 billion, with every £1m invested in research generating an additional £3.9 million to the UK economy (London Economics 2018).

Beyond its sheer scale in terms of employment and skills generation, Queen’s also makes a clear and vital impact as an agent of economic development; I would argue more so than many equivalent universities in other parts of the UK. It’s one thing to spend on R&D, but another to convert it to lasting economic benefits. I’m proud that we have a strong track record of turning R&D into economic impact with Queen’s having been named the UK’s #1 University for Entrepreneurial Impact (Octopus Ventures 2019).  This makes a difference for our regional community in terms of wealth and job creation. We are on our way to creating nearly 100 technology start-ups with 2700 jobs via our spinouts and 1800 via the cybersecurity cluster based around Queen's Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT).

Timely Interventions to help fill the innovation gap

Queen’s is also central to driving regional economic development as a key partner in the delivery of Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD), which is predicted to generate up to 20,000 jobs over the next 15 to 20 years.

The innovation projects created by BRCD focus on the data-driven knowledge economy of the future through new open-source facilities for research and development. They will serve as a catalyst that will drive forward investment in research and development and help embed a culture of innovation to act as a driver for increased productivity.

Building on our expertise in clinical trials, advanced manufacturing and data analytics through secured, connected intelligent systems we are working with industries to develop the opportunities within industry 4.0, the revolution within our systems which will allow us to be more efficient, connected and secure.

The projects will enable businesses to create breakthrough technologies, products and services by leveraging the world-leading expertise offered by Northern Ireland’s Universities, through digital partnerships, technology testbeds, digital infrastructure and an innovators’ networks across the region and enabling local businesses to fully engage in the Knowledge Economy providing widespread economic and social benefits.

New initiatives- Queen's response to COVID-19 and Supporting Northern Ireland’s Business Community

Most immediately there is even greater urgency needed to help stabilise and support our existing high-growth companies in NI - alongside developing new ventures and increasing the overall R&D and innovation capacity of our business base. I am mindful that significant change also brings with it the chance for positive innovation, and can catalyse our long term aims, such as a more sustainable approach to how we live.

Building on our experience in delivering enterprise training across Europe, the University announced the launch of an online innovation programme ‘Adapt4Growth’.  This extends our support for new start-ups to support for existing SMEs – specifically innovation-intensive companies that could be disrupted by the current crisis. In the aftermath of the pandemic, over half of the UK’s most ambitious companies are under threat and this could hit Northern Ireland harder. Through this programme we support companies to test their business models and search for new opportunities fit for the new context. We use our networks with InvestNI, InnovateUK and IntertradeIreland to support companies to secure further funding to develop their concepts.  The objective is to guide companies to be better placed to maintain a competitive position in global markets, secure further funding, and increase productivity during and following the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Whilst the long term local and global impact of the COVID-19 remain unknown, for many of us, the crisis has brought our priorities into sharp focus. This is true at Queen’s, where driving innovation, supporting business and supporting society shape everything we do. 

Image Courtesy of Visit Belfast, copyright Christopher Heaney

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Photo: Professor Emma Flynn Professor Emma Flynn
Professor Emma Flynn joined Queen's in May 2019 as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise. A developmental and comparative psychologist, Professor Flynn is a leader in her research field, with multiple international and inter-disciplinary collaborations.
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