Drawing on findings from a new report into how the social sciences, humanities and arts (SHAPE) disciplines are understood and deployed in policy and industry, Eleanor Hopkins suggests inconsistent reporting and incentives contribute underestimation of SHAPE’s value to research, development and innovation.
The UK has a complicated history with research and development (R&D). At one time, R&D was lauded as a national “Swiss Army knife” to solve any problem, while at other times, the policy focus has shifted to improving the UK’s absorptive capacity of ideas and innovations from overseas. Over the last century R&D funding and performance rose during the Second World War and sustained during the Cold War, and was effectively mobilised, with the proportion of GDP spent on R&D – public and private – peaking at 2.3% in the 1960s.
Or, so we thought.
Bridging the gap between policy and practice
A key recent development in the story is the recalculation of UK R&D investment that has been performed by the ONS. The good news is that we may have surpassed that 1960s peak of 2.3% of GDP invested in R&D. The bad news is that the promised land of productivity gains has not been reached.
What is gradually coming to light is that our counting and recording of R&D is inaccurate, leading to a potential gulf between policy and practice.
Though UK policymakers have adopted the OECD Frascati definition of R&D (the OECD’s Frascati Manual outlines internationally accepted guidelines for collecting and reporting R&D data), which has included SHAPE disciplines (Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy) since 2015, its application across government is patchy.
As a result, this discrepancy may result in businesses being less likely to report an accurate account of activity, with SHAPE research taking the hit.
This is most sharply felt in the exclusion of SHAPE R&D from eligibility for tax relief, in contrast to its inclusion in the collection of UK official statistics. Both tax credits and the ONS survey are tools which require a business to report on its activity. As a result, this discrepancy may result in businesses being less likely to report an accurate account of activity, with SHAPE research taking the hit.
Does current policy accurately account for R&D activities?
This is a central finding to a new report from the British Academy, Understanding SHAPE in R&D, which combines in-depth studies of UK and international policies with the experiences of large global business – such as Netflix and Tesco Bank – in undertaking SHAPE R&D. The findings are clear: there is a significant risk of an inaccurate evidence base on which policy is developed, meaning that UK policy does not accurately reflect the R&D activities which take place, a potentially significant obstacle in the way of the government’s goal of becoming a ‘science and technology superpower’ by 2030.
SHAPE expertise underpins innovation in the UK
Including SHAPE in the UK’s R&D evidence base presents an exciting opportunity to ensure that policies aimed at stimulating innovation are appropriate for the sectors that have the greatest potential to contribute to the UK economy. Of the top five R&D performing sectors, four employed more ‘non-science’ graduates than science graduates in 2020, pointing to the importance of SHAPE skills and expertise in R&D intensive sectors, including manufacturing, informational and communication and financial and insurance activities.
SHAPE disciplines underpin innovation across retail, the creative industries, finance, and technology.
Furthermore, SHAPE expertise is critical to R&D within the services sector, which currently makes up around 80% of the UK economy. From combining creative and technical skills to create Netflix movies to the use of geographers and economists to understand consumer behaviour at Tesco, SHAPE disciplines underpin innovation across retail, the creative industries, finance, and technology. These industry giants have contributed to and endorsed our research.
A more accurate evidence base across all disciplines allows for more efficient investing of GDP in R&D, as well as a better understanding of what the right target investments in R&D might be, and the right method for achieving them to support economic and societal gain. As the UK seeks to improve lives and livelihoods through investment in R&D and innovation, we must create a better evidence base to effectively invest across all types of SHAPE and STEM R&D, with the understanding that innovation is at its heart an interdisciplinary endeavour.
Readers can find the full British Academy report, Understanding SHAPE in R&D: bridging the evidence gap, and supporting evidence via the link.
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