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Daily News Update

 

Highlights

 

Treasury sets up fund to search for ‘unicorns’

The UK government is proposing a national investment fund to commercialise research and propel British start-ups to become unicorns, innovative companies valued at more than $1 billion (£756 million).

The entrepreneur-led fund would encourage investors to increase their investment in long-term capital to support company growth and R&D, the government said in a consultation document for the fund published on 1 August. It could also support the creation of university investment funds.

The size and structure of the fund would depend on whether UK businesses are able to retain access to the European Investment Fund after leaving the European Union, the government said in the document, entitled Financing Growth in Innovative Firms

“One main barrier holding back the continued development of young innovative firms, such as those commercialising research from our universities, continues to be access to long-term investment,” chancellor Phillip Hammond said in a statement.

The fund aims to close a £4bn funding gap between American and British firms and maximise the impact of increased government investment in R&D, according to the document.

Venture capital investment in private firms stands at £4bn per year, but would be £4bn greater if investment levels were the same as in the United States, it claimed.

“Evidence increasingly suggests that the UK is lagging behind its potential in the longer term process of scaling up successful start-ups,” it suggested. At present, only 4 per cent of innovative companies valued at more than $1bn are based in the UK, compared with 54 per cent in the US.

The document also warned that the UK has lower overall levels of business R&D than the US and many European countries.

Long-term capital is “particularly important” for younger firms that invest heavily in R&D, the document said. Just 15 per cent of R&D investment is by younger companies—firms set up after 1975—in the UK, compared with 45 per cent in the US.

Funding could come via a number of routes, but the consultation argued that a public-private partnership would be the “most effective way to crowd in new private investment” as it could provide scale. However, it warned that investors “may not have the appetite to participate in a new fund without an established track record of successful investment”.

An alternative would be to incubate a fund on the government’s balance sheet as a subsidiary of the British Business Bank—a state-owned economic development bank—which could then be sold fully or in part to private investors.

A third option would be to increase government investment through existing channels, although this could “reduce vibrancy within the market and not be fiscally sustainable”.

Flora Hamilton, head of financial services at the Confederation of British Industry, told Research Fortnight that the review was "welcome news for the UK's entrepreneurs".

"Identifying the right finance for growing firms is a cornerstone of the new industrial strategy, and the review will help these businesses navigate their future growth as we prepare to leave the EU," she said.

The consultation follows the Treasury’s Patient Capital Review announced in November 2016 to identify barriers to long-term finance for growing firms.

The consultation invites “everyone with an interest in supporting growing innovative firms” to respond, and will close on 22 September.

 

Europe > France

 

National funder needs more cash, Macron told

Michel Berson, a senator for president Emmanuel Macron’s party, has said that the ANR, France’s national research agency, is “chronically underfunded”.

Berson presented a report on the state of the ANR to the Senate on 27 July. He said that the report, which will be published later this week, would recommend that the ANR’s budget to for research projects, which stood at €457 million in 2016, should be increased to at least €650m by 2020.

If this is not done, the ANR will risk becoming so impotent that the question of its very existence will come into play, he said.

In a remark apparently aimed at Macron—who spoke of boosting investment in research during his presidential campaign—Berson said that it “makes no sense to claim to want to increase the funding of project-based research in France and, at the same time, to entrust the agency responsible for allocating that funding with grossly insufficient means”.

Berson also criticised the ANR in his speech. He said that researchers’ funding applications were frequently rejected without a coherent reason. As a result, his report would recommend measures to increase the ANR’s transparency. He also called on the ANR’s governance structures to be simplified. The agency should also communicate more directly with researchers, he said.

Berson, who was previously a senator for the Socialist Party, switched to Macron’s La Republique En Marche! at the start of the year. In the Senate, Berson represents Essonne, the French department that is home to the Paris-Saclay mega-university. He has a long-standing interest in research and innovation.

Berson’s speech came only six days after Michael Matlosz, the former president of the ANR, stepped down. In his speech, Berson said that the proximity of the two events was a coincidence.

 

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March for Science makes stand against cuts

The French organising committee of the March for Science has urged president Emmanuel Macron to reverse plans to reduce the science budget by €330 million this year.

The committee published an open letter to Macron in the newspaper Le Monde on 26 July. It said that Macron had been supportive of the March for Science, which took place on 22 April, during the presidential campaign.

“At that time, you promised to protect the research budget and ‘defend the knowledge, progress and values of the Enlightenment’. Then, last week we learned that your government has decided to cut €330m in research and university funding,” it said.

The march organisers also criticised Make Our Planet Great Again, the programme launched by Macron in June to attract top overseas climate researchers to France.

After detailing a degrading environment for researchers in France, the committee said that any international researchers recruited under the programme would find “a scientific environment marked by unemployment and precariousness, very different from the one you had promised them”.

The organisers concluded by saying that unless Macron cancels the plans, “the adverse consequences for our country are likely to be dramatic in the short, medium and long term”.

The government announced on 13 July that it would cut the science budget by €180m. However, leaked plans for bigger cuts that would take the science budget reduction to €331m were published by news website EducPros and newspaper Le Monde on the same day. The wider cuts have not yet been confirmed by the government.

 

UK > Universities

 

Jisc wants more training on cybersecurity threats

UK universities must do more to increase awareness of potential threats online, according to a survey by the higher education ICT organisation Jisc.

Forty per cent of universities set aside a specific budget for cybersecurity in 2015-16, and this figure is expected to rise to 58 per cent in 2017-18, the study found. The level of spending on cybersecurity is expected to rise by an average of 132 per cent over the next year.

Of the 51 universities that took part in the survey, 83 per cent offer information security awareness training to staff, although this is only compulsory in 46 per cent of cases. Just 40 per cent of universities offer similar student training, and only 8 per cent make training compulsory for students.

The study said that awareness of cyber threats was critical to help deal with social engineering threats—a method using deception to manipulate individuals into revealing confidential information that may be used for fraudulent purposes. "Being more aware of specific threats and improving user awareness can benefit institutions by reducing their exposure to attacks that can have serious implications,” said John Chapman, Jisc’s cybersecurity compliance manager. 

The survey found that 82 per cent of universities use third-party services to test their systems for vulnerabilities, but only about half use these to gain intelligence about threats.

There have been 770 recorded attacks that disrupt access to computers or other network resources against 176 research and education institutions since October 2016, Jisc figures showed.

Respondents who felt their institution was well protected against cyber attacks said they felt management take the issue seriously, with suitable investment and training in place. Those that did not reported a lack of investment and support for cybersecurity from senior decision-makers, as well as trouble recruiting qualified staff.

 

University staff morale hit by Brexit fears

Brexit is casting a shadow over staff morale and recruitment in universities, but has not yet dealt a major blow to the hiring and retention of European Union citizens, the latest higher education workforce survey has shown.

A third of the 71 universities that took part in the study released by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) on 31 July said the EU referendum has had an impact on their ability to recruit staff from the EU, with a similar proportion reporting some impact on retention.

However, for the majority of these, the impact was minor. Only 8.6 per cent of higher education institutions said they had seen anything more than a minor impact on both recruitment and retention.

In fact, some institutions reported that they had received a higher number of applications from non-UK staff in the past year. “This might have been the last attempt to get in just before article 50 was triggered,” commented a respondent from an old established Scottish university.

While the overall impact of Brexit on hiring has been limited, respondents reported that the UK’s impending exit from the EU has affected staff morale.

“Brexit has not had a dramatic effect on the academic workforce in terms of the data, but it is clear from this survey and previous surveys that the emotional impact has been high and that ongoing uncertainty is an issue,” the report said.

And many of the survey’s participants said they were concerned about recruitment from the EU over the two-year Brexit negotiation period. More than half of the respondents said they were worried about their ability to recruit and retain staff in academic roles during this period, and a third of respondents were concerned about the recruitment of researchers.

The survey highlighted the need for certainty on work and residency rights for EU staff at UK universities, said Alistair Jarvis, acting chief executive of Universities UK. "The UK government must ensure that the UK continues to welcome, with minimal barriers, talented EU staff and students… or risk losing them to competitor countries," he said.

Echoing the need for an immigration system that helps universities to recruit EU talent, Russell Group head of policy Sarah Stevens said: "Brexit is causing a significant degree of anxiety for EU academics and other workers."

Beyond the ‘Brexit effect’, barriers to recruitment included a lack of necessary skills or expertise among applicants and a lack of competitiveness with industry pay levels, the survey showed.

The greatest recruitment challenge for post-92 universities—former polytechnics given university status through the Further and Higher Education Act 1992—was recruiting academics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, with 55 per cent reporting difficulties in the area.

For pre-92 institutions, medicine, dentistry and health presented the greater challenge, with nearly half saying they had faced difficulties recruiting in this area. Economics and business studies also represented a challenge, with difficulties reported at all levels, but most commonly at lecturer and professor levels.

This survey is the UCEA’s seventh analysis of recruitment and retention in higher education, undertaken in association with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

 

UK > Publishing

 

Publisher helps researchers to share content

Authors and subscribers to journals published through the Wiley Online Library will now be able to share their free-to-read articles with non-subscribers.

The publisher announced on 31 July that Wiley Content Sharing is now available across all journals in its stable of more than 1,700 publications, following a four-month trial across 180 journals. Users shared more than 7,000 links to articles during the trial, the company said.

Selected media outlets will also be able to share links to full-text articles. 

The service aims to “increase collaboration and ensure that important discoveries are disseminated as widely as possible”, said Judy Verses, Wiley’s executive vice-president for research.

 

UK > Charities & Societies

 

Physics body creates entrepreneurship club

Physicists working in industry have welcomed the announcement of an Institute of Physics interest group for entrepreneurs and physics-based companies.

The group aims to facilitate networking and collaborations and help members to access tools such as business support, finance and affordable workspace, the IoP said in a statement on 31 July. The group will be chaired by IoP’s vice-president for business James McKenzie, who is also the chief executive of L Photonstar LED Group, which designs and makes LED lights. 

It is important for the group to help prepare physicists for the commercial world, IoP members said at a town hall meeting on 27 July. Another priority should be to create a network of successful industrial physicists, they said. In particular, training should be provided in areas including intellectual property and starting up a business.

Paul Hardaker, the IoP’s chief executive, said that building links between industry and academia was a priority for his organisation, along with building a skills base and having an active advocacy role. “Our commitment is that we will put resources and energy into [the group] and stick with it,” he said. 

The interest group will be formally launched at the IoP annual innovation awards ceremony on 18 October. It will join the institute’s 49 existing groups representing a range of sub-disciplines of physics and its applications, including women in physics, physics communication and physics in food manufacturing.

 

Academy honours Cambridge soil mechanics pioneer

A Cambridge engineer responsible for transformational research in soil mechanics is to be honoured by the Royal Academy of Engineering for his sustained achievements throughout a 50-year career.

Andrew Schofield,  an emeritus professor of civil engineering at the University of Cambridge, is being recognised for the profound impact of his research, which includes pioneering the use of centrifuge modelling in geotechnical and civil engineering.

He will receive the Sir Frank Whittle Medal at the academy’s annual meeting in London on 5 September.

Sarah Springman, rector of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, who supported Schofield’s nomination, said: “It is almost impossible to try to quantify the degree of Andrew Schofield’s legacy, from the ideas that characterise and promote design for a robust infrastructure and in the people who he has inspired, both in practice and in academia.”

 

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