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Making innovation taste better

In his foreword to The Race to the Top, David Sainsbury makes bold claims for the restorative powers of his new recipe in words that will almost certainly come back to haunt him: “In the future it will no longer be necessary to start every report of this kind with the dreary statement that, while the UK has an excellent record of research, we have a poor record of turning discoveries into new products and services”.

His long-awaited review is a door-stopper that tours almost every conceivable aspect of the malaise of the UK’s innovation system (or “ecosystem”). Sainsbury plainly believes that he has found the Holy Grail, the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of what is “wrong” with the UK’s innovation system. These “findings” are capped off with recommendations for salvation. One wonders why, if life is that simple, the UK has been struggling with these well-rehearsed issues for 150 years?

The leitmotif of the review may well come to be its emphasis on the concept of the innovation ecosystem: “an economy’s rate of innovation depends on a range of activities and the links between them.” Such semi-official public endorsement of this concept marks the formal adoption of an approach to innovation policy that has increasingly held sway since Labour came to power in 1997. Such approaches are grounded in the axiomatic belief of the Blair/Brown governments that the primary job of the state is to assist the development of private business as the best way to enrich citizens. One can argue about the virtues or vices of such an approach—but, sadly, the review merely unquestioningly accepts it. However, it may be useful for those seeking public funding and other support to have such a ringing endorsement of their role.

Despite running the ecosystem concept up the flagpole, the review consistently fails to salute it, which suggests a failure to engage at a higher level with what it might really mean. For instance, the discussion of the role of higher education in the ecosystem is firmly embedded in a concept of the linear extraction of knowledge from higher education institutions to the private sector. Thus, universities are reduced to supply-side providers: “We briefly survey the measurable addition to the stock of knowledge made by public sector research”. At the same time, there is no discussion of knowledge pooling, knowledge commons or knowledge sharing.

Just as the underlying conceptualisations are either not new or flawed, so is the evidence. Sainsbury presents a comprehensive and thorough restatement of what is widely known, understood or (more often) simply asserted. Some of it, such as the explanations of value chains or the operations of venture capital markets, does not even reach undergraduate level.

These restatements of fact and ‘fact’ are supplemented throughout the report with recommendations. Many of these, as you might expect given the contributors to the review exercise, are not surprising. For instance, universities have been complaining all summer about the squeeze on Knowledge Transfer Partnership funds—and the review recommends doubling their number on the basis of evidence generated by, well, the universities and the private organisations who run the current scheme.

While the review offers little that’s new or enlightening, it will bring much cheer to many quarters as there is something for everyone. Whether that resolves the malaise is, of course, another issue. But all of this begs the question as to why this is the best that could be produced?

The UK government is now thoroughly hooked on the notion of ‘evidence-based’ policy-making, and the review “builds on what we believe is an evidence-based appraisal of our innovation performance”. Now, “evidence-based” sounds as wholesome and incontestable as “innovation ecosystems”, but the name belies an approach to policy-making that has inherent and potentially fatal weaknesses.

The essence of evidence-based policy is one of ‘bad science’—generating evidence that sustains government policy rather than questioning it, challenging it and coming up with new (and perhaps unpopular) solutions. In fact, it might be more aptly termed ‘policy-based evidence’. The review smacks of this—highly selective ‘evidence’, unsubstantiated assertions and unquestioned assumptions. A leavening of scepticism attached to the ‘evidence’ provided by those who have ostensibly failed to deliver what the government wants would have given the review a hard and challenging edge.

There might be nothing wrong with this if the solution proposed were to be likely to work—but the ‘evidence base’ of UK struggles with innovation over the past 150 years suggests otherwise. A real question for Sainsbury might be how it is that “a review of government’s science and innovation policies” can be so lacking in imagination, intellectual-robustness and, well, innovative thought.