Queens speech 2016

On Wednesday the Government set out its legislative agenda for the 2016-17 Parliament in the Queen’s Speech. It announced that bills will be introduced to reorganise the UK’s research and innovation funding system and to reduce unjustified patent challenges.

A reorganisation of research and innovation funding bodies

The UK’s research and innovation funding system is set to be reorganised by a new Higher Education and Research Bill this Parliament. It was the first bill introduced to Parliament following the Queen’s Speech.

The Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills also published a white paper last Monday setting out its intentions to bring the seven Research Councils, Innovate UK, and a new body called Research England under one umbrella called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The move follows a green paper and Sir Paul Nurse’s recommendations to improve coordination between funders in a similar way late last year. You can read the BIA’s submissions to both the green paper consultation and Nurse Review consultation here and here.

White paperThe nine Councils, as they will officially be called, will keep their branding, discipline-focus and separate budgets and leadership but many backroom functions will be merged, including grant administration. Research England will take over the university block grant funding, which includes support for technology transfer, from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which is to be dissolved.

The nine Councils will be led by Executive Chairs – “high profile positions appointed by Ministers on the advice of UKRI’s Board and reporting to UKRI’s CEO”. The Chair of UKRI has already been announced as John Kingman, who is stepping down as Second Permanent Secretary to the Treasury in July. He will lead UKRI on an interim basis while it is being established. His appointment means someone who has shown a deep interest and support for UK bioscience translation is the new boss. The inclusion of the term ‘Innovation’ in the name of this new body is also a positive signal at the importance of translation.

The white paper is keen to highlight the importance and distinction of support for innovation in the new architecture. It states that Innovate UK’s business-facing focus will be enshrined in future legislation, which would replicate the functions in its current charter (this will also be done for the Research Councils). As now, the Secretary of State will allocate a hypothecated budget to Innovate UK and will also “consider the option” of nominating a member of the UKRI Board to lead in promoting and championing innovation and business interests and providing strategic support to the Innovate UK Executive Chair. The post holder would sit on the council of Innovate UK.

It’s positive to see that the Government has listened to BIA calls for the Research Councils and Innovate UK to keep their brands, autonomy, and distinct funding streams. We believe that such autonomy is essential to ensure they are led by and employ experts to manage the strategic and efficient use of public funds. However, the devil will be in the detail to assess whether this proposed structure is better placed than what we currently have to underpin the UK’s global competitiveness and attractiveness as a research destination.

From a business perspective, it is essential that Innovate UK retains its ability to support businesses to translate research and to innovate and scale up in order to generate wider economic benefit and is not seen as just a technology transfer office for the other Councils.

As these proposals are taken forward the BIA looks forward to working with Government, Parliament and wider stakeholders to ensure such optimal outcomes are delivered by these proposals.

Higher education reform

As the name suggests, the Higher Education and Research Bill will also make changes to the higher education system. These reforms make up the majority of the white paper in fact and are wide-ranging.

In brief, the Government’s intention is to create greater competition in the higher education sector by making it easier for new universities to be established and unsuccessful ones to close. It also intends to raise institutions’ focus on delivering high-quality teaching by linking performance to tuition fee rises, widen access to students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds, and give students more power as customers.

Clamping down on unjustified patent challenges

An Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech and published the following day to reform the law around unjustified threats of infringement proceedings for patents, trademarks, and design rights. It is intended to provide greater clarity for right holders and third parties that become involved in IP disputes. The Government says that the bill will help create an IP environment that favours negotiation and settlement rather than litigation.

Threats can be made by organisations or individuals that believe their IP has been unlawfully used by another. However, threats can also be used to inappropriately intimidate others to gain an unfair competitive advantage. This can be a particular problem for smaller biotechnology companies that do not have the resources to fight large claims.

The legislation follows a detailed report and draft bill from the Law Commission. The bill will define what a threat is, create a “safe harbour” to discuss disputes, and provide protection to lawyers intended to allow them to better resolve disputes. It will also make a clearer distinction between approaches made to different parts of the supply chain, forcing the right holder to focus their allegations on the source of the alleged infringement.

The BIA’s Intellectual Property Advisory Committee will be assessing the proposed legislation and directing our engagement with the reforms.