Innovation for Growth – a central view

At a national Science and Innovation Conference yesterday there were many contributions from government and its agencies, the private sector and the European Commission, with the common thread that the UK has a world-leading research base that should be supported and encouraged to fuel economic and employment growth.  In his keynote address, David Willetts, Minister for Science and Higher Education highlighted areas requiring further focus to achieve this, drawing on last December’s Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth,  and reiterating Vince Cable’s recent call for a properly supported industrial strategy with both horizontal strands (eg skills, regulation issues) and vertical (sector) focus. 

 The areas he highlighted as requiring further focus,  and some reflections of my own in the light of subsequent presentations and discussion during the day, follow:

  1. Better collaboration across Public Sector to enable clearer pathways for innovation to market with sustained public support to the point of sufficiently low risk for private investment – more akin to the US model.  The Life Sciences Strategy aims to achieve this for one sector, but needs to be replicated elsewhere.  Evidence from the rest of the day suggested that, whilst various government departments and agencies are working to broadly the same script, and are aware of where other’s schemes abut with theirs, it still felt a way from truly joined up thinking. There is indeed work to be done here to remove the carefully maintained territories of different departments and see this as common ground.
  2. Access to publicly funded research, as proposed by the recent Finch report,  would immediately help large companies. To enable SMEs to benefit a user-friendly research portal to UK university research was in development. This would enable universities to provide ‘outsourced R&D’ for SME and to engage with large businesses on a more open innovation model.  Later, however, HEFCE’s Director of Research, Innovation and Skills cautioned against universities being too driven by industry agendas and lose sight of the world-class fundamental research so attractive to business.  David Willetts actually said Open Data and access to publicly funded research in one breath, but of course the former is a whole different issue, with a White Paper published today.
  3. Easier SME-University connections, by means such as vouchers. Later presentations also highlighted R&D tax credits and the range of TSB collaborative R&D support as incentives to innovate, some geared more to SMEs and others to larger companies.  Whilst we were told the Growth Accelerator Programme (formerly Business Coaching for Growth) will signpost all of these, surely the range of separately branded schemes must still be bewildering for an SME.
  4. Management Skills to improve business performance, in terms of competitiveness and quality of life measures.  Here he suggested stronger links to University Business Schools, who would have to be incentivised by their impact on real business performance counting in their assessment, rather than the current rather academic focus.  The theme of universities’ assessment via the Research Excellence Framework (REF) came up several times throughout the day, and the balance between impact measures and yet maintaining the excellent fundamental research that underpins application and is so attractive to (large) business.
  5. Capital Investments into the research base need to continue to be made to maintain excellence, but are unlikely to come from large, purely government blocks of funding.  The model is likely to involve a mix of public and private funds in future.
  6. Actively engage with big technology areas, though not necessarily expecting to lead on all.  The Uk needs to position itself to enable it to, at minimum, adopt new technologies rapidly, through horizon scanning and flexibility.  Awareness and influence on EU policies will be required to ensure these do not slow down engagement.

This very diverse list of areas of focus, each multifaceted in its own right as indicated, illustrates the complexity of the Innovation Landscape in the UK.  Perhaps the message that stuck in my head the most from the day from one delegate was that we ‘should not try to emulate the Germans because our economy is different’.  The UK must understand the barriers and incentives that will work here and take a consistent approach to creating an environment that will enable innovation for growth.