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The challenges and opportunities facing the UK public sector’s science estate – a three part series

Part 1

On the 8th of December 2020 Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother from Coventry became the first person in the world to receive a vaccine against COVID-19. This is just one example of how the UK is at the cutting edge of research to prevent disease, tackle climate change and discover the secrets of the universe. Much has been written about the impact of UK scientific research but in this blog, we wanted to turn attention to the role of the public sector’s real estate in enabling that research.

In this series of blogs, we will examine some of the challenges and opportunities facing the public sector’s science estate and make suggestions which we believe would lead to more efficiency in managing the estate.

So why is the public sector’s science estate so complex to manage?

For a start, the scale, over 1 million square metres across almost 500 buildings, with annual operating costs of c £170m.

Add to that the diversity of research supported and the conditions needed to be in place. For example, medical experiments may require constant conditions; atomic research requires high and consistent power input. Scientific outcomes would be compromised by building system failure. Effectively each property has its own specific requirements.

Demands for high and consistent power inputs mean that the science estate has a significant running cost and carbon footprint.

What’s also noticeable about the UK’s science estate, both in the public sector and in wider academia and research, is how fragmented it is. The chart below shows the range of government bodies managing science estate. For example, whilst around a third of the estate is shown under UK Research and Innovation, that is owned and managed by its Research Councils, which are each separate bodies with their own resources, structures and governance.

So, it’s big, complex, and managed by multiple bodies, supporting extremely varied research. But there are common themes across this diverse estate including:

  • Estate management;
  • Investment planning;
  • Running costs;
  • Carbon footprint; and,
  • Skills and knowledge.

As with many complex challenges, the solutions start with small steps. In our work across the range of public sector bodies managing science assets, we see a huge amount of great work being done. There are opportunities to share knowledge on these common themes, which could create some quick wins and long-term improvements.

In our next blogs, we explore those themes to highlight how efficiency might be improved to optimise the estate’s role in enabling research.

Data source: State of the Estate 2020/21