Levelling-up seems destined to remain central to the priorities of the Rishi Sunak government. Last week, addressing the Institute of Small Business and Entrepreneurship (ISBE) conference, ex-Conservative politician Justine Greening, and Charlie Jeffrey (University of York) talked passionately about the convening power of universities in leading strong and impactful local projects. Both also emphasised the importance of research and the evidence-base to the levelling-up agenda.

This goes beyond scientific research, however, reflecting the potential contribution of social science to maximising the value of science investments. This is well illustrated by the Smart Nano Northern Ireland project, which is being supported through the UKRI’s Strength in Places fund[1], and which is the focus of a current ERC research project.

Smart Nano NI focuses on the development and diffusion of nanophotonic manufacturing and product technologies. This involves some brilliant – and to me incomprehensible -engineering and data science. But the social science involved is perhaps more familiar, university business partnerships, incubation, entrepreneurship, and the need for businesses to continually innovate.

The lead partners in Smart Nano NI are Seagate – of hard disks fame – and Queen’s University of Belfast. Seagate have a major and world leading wafer manufacturing operation (thin slices of semiconductors) in Derry in the North-West of Northern Ireland and a long track record of scientific collaboration with Queen’s. A good example of a large regional business ‘stepping up’ (to use Justine Greening’s phase) to contribute to the levelling-up agenda.

At the heart of the project is a scientific collaboration involving Queens, Seagate, and around half a dozen other small Northern Ireland companies. For these businesses, adopting nanophotonic technologies could be transformational over the five years of the project. There’s a link too to the North West College of Further Education, also in Derry. So, there’s a local skills dimension to the project, building and sustaining economic capacity in Derry itself.

Another key actor in the project is the Digital Catapult Northern Ireland. They are running a related accelerator programme designed to stimulate start-up activity around nanophononics and advanced digital manufacturing. Ideally, over time this should lead to the commercialisation of some of the PhD research which is being undertaken at Queen’s as part of the project.

So, where does the social science come in? Led by Nola Hewitt-Dundas, ERC is working with researchers from Queen’s University Management School to use social science approaches to both study and strengthen the project. This has two dimensions. First, our research will generate learning from the project. How are spillovers occuring? What is enabling knowledge transfer, or indeed hindering its flow? This will inform other local R&D and innovation-based policy programmes. Second, by feeding this intelligence back to the leaders, the research should help to maximise the value to Northern Ireland of the grant support being provided.

In Smart Nano NI we have strong triple-helix partnership between business, academia and government, designed to use some fantastic new emerging technology to build a strong regional cluster, with real potential to make a key contribution to the levelling up agenda in Northern Ireland.

Stephen Roper, Director, ERC


Please note that the views expressed in this blog belong to the individual blogger and do not represent the official view of the

Enterprise Research Centre, its Funders or Advisory Group

[1] https://www.ukri.org/what-we-offer/browse-our-areas-of-investment-and-support/strength-in-places-fund/#:~:text=The%20Strength%20in%20Places%20Fund,collaborations%20involving%20research%20and%20innovation.