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Catapults, vouchers and prizes: innovation strategy unveiled

The government has announced plans to support innovation clusters around the country, promote open access publishing and fund inducement prizes in its much-anticipated Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth.

As announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement last week, the Technology Strategy Board will receive an extra £75 million over the spending review period to support innovation in small and medium-sized businesses.

The strategy, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 8 December, sets out more detail on how the money will be spent.

Plans include relaunching the Smart scheme as a replacement for the grant for research and development. This scheme, which ran during the 1980s, would offer grants to small businesses to encourage them to undertake high-risk technology projects.

The TSB will invest £1m over 2012-13 in innovation vouchers, the first of which will be awarded in 2012. The vouchers, previously awarded by Regional Development Agencies, would be used by businesses to purchase R&D activities from universities.

It will also work to expand launch pad-style projects around the country to help out innovative SMEs. These will be based on east London’s Tech City initiative.

The government is also committing itself to investing more in the TSB’s Small Business Research Initiative, on top of the £20m announced in the 2011 budget. An exact figure is yet to be confirmed.

The strategy announces that the government is to rename its £200m Technology Innovation Centres “catapult centres”.

Themes for three centres have already been confirmed: high-value manufacturing, cell therapy and offshore renewable energy. Another three are to be announced but the full network will be up and running by 2013.

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts is to set up a centre of expertise that will offer inducement prizes to stimulate innovation, the first of which will be in the region of £100,000.

BIS will invest around £250,000 per year to support further prizes. Nesta will also be on the hunt for investments from elsewhere in government and businesses to add to this pot.

Speaking at the launch of the strategy, science minister David Willetts said the government had been influenced by evidence on the success of clusters in innovation when putting together the strategy. Measures reflecting this influence include a project to be led by Research Councils UK and other funders on developing a framework to better support joint applications for research funding from consortia of institutions. This framework will be published in February.

Willetts was keen to emphasise the government’s commitment to making the results of publicly-funded research available free of charge. The government has called on the research councils to tighten up their efforts on this front.

Currently, grant holders are required to make their work available in open access repositories within six months of publishing. However, the strategy notes that “this practice is unevenly enforced”. The councils are to invest £2m in developing the UK Gateway to Research by 2013. This open access repository will initially hold research council-funded research but is expected to include research funded by other organisations in the future.

Other initiatives already underway to support open access include an independent review being led by Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele University, and a review by the Royal Society into improving the sharing a disclosure of research data.

Both these projects are due to report in early 2012 and the government will take action later in the year.

Another initiative, led by Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is aimed at improving access to data held by government departments and agencies. It will report back in 2012.

As anticipated, the strategy announces cooperation between the UK and Chinese governments to establish a pilot initiative to fund bilateral research projects in “key areas of mutual interest”. Details of this programme will be published in April with calls for proposal expected to be published at some point next year.

The government is looking to get more out of European funding for research and innovation. Measures include creating a dedicated team at the Technology Strategy Board to work on boosting the UK’s share of takings from the European Regional Development Fund.

BIS will also improve the support available to UK companies wishing to apply for funding from Horizon 2020, the planned successor to the European Framework Programme. However, asked whether they support increasing the budget for Horizon 2020 from €55 billion to €80bn, Willetts and business secretary Vince Cable did not give a definitive answer.

Cable said that the government’s overall policy was to reduce the EU budget but that it would like to see greater investment in agricultural research. Willetts added that the government would like to see the research budget become a “larger part of a smaller overall budget”.

Following publication of the strategy, Willetts faced criticism in the House of Commons from David Lammy, Labour’s former higher education minister, who argued that the strategy had failed to fulfil promises that it would address issues with postgraduate education and research.