Our industry is losing out on R&D funding because of poor quality bids - these must improve if we are to get a larger piece of the pie

We have heard recent ‘dire warnings’ over shortfall in R&D investment by government – but we can’t just blame government and say they must invest more. We need to raise our game considerably in terms of the quality of our bids or risk losing funding to other sectors.

In recent years the funding of collaborative research and development has changed and this work is now primarily funded through the Technology Strategy Board which, operating across all sectors of the UK economy, aims “to stimulate innovation in those areas which offer the greatest scope for boosting UK growth and productivity.”

As a result our bids for funding compete with other sectors including automotive, aerospace, electronics and manufacturing. In recent “calls” there have been only a small number of good quality bids from the construction sector and we have largely failed to gain our share of the funding available.

What’s wrong with Construction R&D bids?

Having, in the past, acted as an assessor of bids for government funding I would express my disappointment at the quality of some bids with common themes emerging, including:

  • Missing the target For example, a bid may be addressing social science issues - “how to collaborate better” - but they do not effectively match the criteria for a Technology Strategy Board funding competition – nice idea, wrong target.
  • The need for funding Some bids purport to generate millions in profit and/or savings but do not then demonstrate why they need government funding as opposed to venture capital or self-funding.
  • Insufficient innovation Others go for a new development (for them) without doing their homework and spotting that the work has already been done by others, possibly in other sectors.
  • Insufficient commercial benefit Some bids fail because they address a very noble cause but fail to demonstrate how they will take the results to market or generate any sustainable business return.
  • Poor bid writing Perhaps the most frustrating bids are those where there appears to be a good bid ‘in there somewhere’ but poor draftsmanship and failing to articulate their responses properly means they fail to convince an assessor.

I would also suggest that some bids appear to be developed as a result of the need for continuity funding for a research department or organisation – in my opinion this driver doesn’t make for good quality research, development and innovation outcomes. We need funding to be leveraged against 100% industry-driven, commercially-oriented innovation.

So – what should we be doing about it?

The government supports the establishment of sector-focused networks that aim to establish themes for future calls and bring together bid teams. They are called Knowledge Transfer Networks and we have one for the Modern Built Environment, but, I doubt many readers knew that. We need to challenge and support our network to get it working better for us.

The government is also supporting our sector via the “National Platform” facilitated by Constructing Excellence that is developing a strategic research agenda for UK Construction. This is an excellent step forward and that agenda is to be published soon. We need to challenge these organisations to ensure that they are collaborating and primarily working for industry – not primarily for research organisations.

With so many opportunities in our sector for excellent, industry driven, commercially sound innovations, we must rise to the challenge and improve our performance in the competition for funding. If we don’t, funding that is available to construction will be enthusiastically spent by teams from other sectors and it will certainly be our loss and their gain.