‘Catapults’ refer to independent, not-for-profit technology and innovation centres in the UK. They house technical experts, as well as research and development (R&D) infrastructures such as hubs and laboratories. Their purpose is to bridge the gap between research and industry.

There are nine catapults that form the ‘catapult network’ and are overseen by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK. Spanning 40 locations across the UK, the catapults specialise in various sectors including digital, medicines discovery and offshore renewable energy.

1. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee inquiry

Launched in November 2020, the inquiry looked at the catapults’ contribution to delivering the UK’s R&D roadmap. The roadmap, published by the government in July 2020, set the long-term objectives for R&D in the UK. This included investment in science and research that could deliver economic growth and societal benefits. It also included a target from the government’s 2017 industrial strategy to raise investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

The committee considered the role that catapults have played in stimulating long-term private investment and supporting new innovation collaborations between organisations. The committee did not review the catapults themselves as part of the inquiry.

The committee’s findings were published in the report ‘Catapults: Bridging the gap between research and industry’ on 5 February 2021.

2. ‘Catapults: Bridging the gap between research and industry’ report

The committee found that the UK’s innovation system had the necessary components to be successful. However, it lacked the necessary scale and collaboration for it to fully realise the economic benefits for the UK. The committee found that catapults faced several barriers to delivering on their objective of bridging the gap between research and industry. One such barrier included the funding available for innovation in the UK.

Funding for innovation activities involving catapults comes from three sources: one third from a government grant (provided via Innovate UK); one third from industry partners; and one third from collaborative R&D funding (CRD funding). CRD funding sees catapults bid for funds as part of consortia involving industry partners and public sector partners such as universities.

Innovate UK caps the amount of CRD funding that can be allocated to public sector partners in a consortium. The cap, which is usually 30% of total eligible project costs, is then shared out between public sector bodies in the consortium.

The committee’s report said the CRD funding cap could limit a catapult’s ability to engage in certain projects and collaborate with universities, research and technology organisations, and other catapults. Several witnesses raised concerns during the inquiry about the cap on CRD funding, including the acting chief executive officer and chief technology officer of the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult, Martin McHugh. Mr McHugh explained how the cap could hinder innovation collaboration:

The universities are slightly disincentivised from collaborating. […] In our catapult, we rely heavily on CRD funding to collaborate with universities and industry. For instance, over 68% of our projects have university collaboration. In our written evidence, we gave an example where, because of the 30% cap on CRD funding, the project has to be of large scale to allow a catapult and a university to have reasonable traction. […] If we could have a better funding mechanism, where the catapults and universities were incentivised to work better together in a CRD programme, that would be a better solution.

The report also highlighted that, unlike research bodies such as universities, catapults were not entitled to apply for funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) research councils. UKRI is a non-departmental public body that oversees seven research councils (including the Science and Technology Facilities Council), Research England (which is responsible for supporting research and knowledge exchange at higher education institutions in England) and Innovate UK. The committee said that lack of access to research council funding placed catapults at a disadvantage compared to universities.

Overall, the committee said the rules governing innovation funding created barriers to collaborations between catapults and universities, and also had the potential to deter industrial partners.

In addition to funding, the committee considered private investment in UK R&D. It said more strategic decisions from the government, UKRI and Innovate UK were needed to “optimise the performance of the organisations and maximise innovation and commercialisation”. The committee described the catapult network as an important UK asset that needed wider promotion. It said the UK R&D system needed further establishment to increase academia involvement and industry investment.

2.1 Committee recommendations

The committee said action was needed to support catapults and improve collaboration with universities and industry. To address this, it made several recommendations to the government, UKRI and Innovate UK in its report. Key recommendations included:

  • The government, UKRI and Innovate UK should create a clear plan for how public sector resources and private investment could match the roadmap ambition.
  • The government should scale up the catapult network. Without this, the committee said it was unlikely that sufficient private sector investment would be received in order to meet the government’s R&D spending target.
  • UKRI should help catapults and universities work together more easily on innovation projects.
  • UKRI should allow catapults to bid for research council funding where there are clear advantages for research and innovation.
  • Innovate UK should offer greater flexibility in allowing public sector bodies to have a larger share of CRD funding, particularly where more than one such organisation is involved.

Overall, the committee believed that the government’s R&D ambitions were not supported by a clear plan or sufficient investment in innovation. It said the government should provide more details about how it planned to deliver the roadmap, including how it would attract private sector investment to meet its 2.4% of GDP target.

3. Government’s response to the committee’s report

The government published its official response to the committee’s report on catapults in April 2021. It stated that the overall 2.4% of GDP target could be achieved by 2027 or earlier, however leveraging private investment was vital in order to meet this target.

Referring to the committee’s recommendation that a clear plan be created to confirm how the ambitions in the roadmap would be achieved, the government said proposals for “unleashing innovation” were due to be published as part of a forthcoming innovation strategy. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published this strategy in July 2021.

On scaling-up the catapult network, the government said a balance needed to be struck between opening new catapults and ensuring that existing catapults had the funding needed to operate effectively.

With reference to the committee’s concerns on collaboration, the government noted the importance of catapults and universities working easily together on innovative projects. It said it would work with Innovate UK, catapults, universities and others to promote new connections.

On funding, the government agreed that the lack of access for catapults to research council funding, and the cap on CRD funding for public sector bodies, could reduce collaboration between catapults and universities. It noted that the government’s review into how the UK’s catapults could strengthen R&D research and capacity, published in April 2021, had asked UKRI and Innovate UK to review their funding rules. It also asked UKRI to review whether catapults could be permitted to bid for relevant research council funding.

4. Recent developments

4.1 Government strategies and bodies

The government published several strategies to support its R&D ambitions. This included an R&D people and culture strategy published in July 2021 that set out how it would develop the research workforce.

In the same month, BEIS published the ‘UK innovation strategy’. This described the government’s vision for the UK to become a “global hub for innovation” by 2035. Key actions included increasing annual public investment on R&D to £22bn. The government said increasing innovation would enhance productivity across the economy and increase jobs, growth and prosperity across the UK.

The government has also established the Office for Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) and a Council for Science and Technology (CST). The OSTS is a unit within the Cabinet Office that supports the UK’s science and technology capabilities. It consists of a team led by the national technology adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The CST advises the prime minister on science and technology policy issues across government. It is supported by a secretariat in the Government Office for Science and works with BEIS.

4.2 Research and development investment

As part of the government’s ‘Autumn budget and spending review 2021’, the Treasury announced investment of £20bn in research and development (R&D) by 2024/25. This was an increase of around a quarter (in real terms) over the spending review period. The government said this made significant progress towards achieving the target of 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027. It noted the investment would build on the support provided through the UK via current programmes such as the catapult network.

R&D investments were also referred to in the government’s ‘Levelling up in the UK’ white paper published on 2 February 2022. The white paper said that in order to meet the target for total UK R&D investment to reach 2.4% of GDP, every UK region needed an uplift in investment. To address this, it said BEIS would aim to invest at least 55% of its total domestic R&D funding outside the greater south east by 2024/25, amongst other things.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics said that total R&D expenditure represented 1.74% of GDP in 2019.

5. Read more

Cover image by Edward Jenner on Pexels.