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Innovation strategy wins few plaudits

Academics and lobby groups not impressed by small solutions

The government has been accused of failing to put forward a coherent policy for growth in its much anticipated Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, published last week.

Small business representatives and academic commentators alike said they were disappointed by the strategy, which they argue does not answer any big questions about growth or postgraduate education. Some said, however, that an economic policy paper, published alongside the strategy on 8 December, contained the seeds of a more expansive innovation policy in the future.

The Technology Strategy Board’s “£75 million boost for high tech small and medium-sized businesses” has been billed as the centrepiece to the strategy. However, John Mitchell, chairman of the SME Innovation Alliance, says the government is handing out “peanuts” through the plan.

This includes £1 million for innovation vouchers, through which small businesses are given cash to spend on university expertise, and the rebranding of the Grant for Research and Development as Smart grants. Mitchell welcomed the Smart scheme but branded the amount of money on offer as “pathetic”.

Others said the strategy erred by focusing on SMEs as innovators. “A very small amount of SMEs are very innovative and a very large number of SMEs are not…they’re corner shops and decorators and things like that,” says Kieron Flanagan, science and technology policy specialist at the University of Manchester. “SMEs are perhaps not the best place to focus unless you can somehow work out how to target the fast-growing SMEs—that’s the holy grail.”

Mike Caine, deputy head of enterprise at Loughborough University, said the measures announced in the strategy would not be sufficient to address a “fundamental mismatch” between universities and SMEs. It is more fruitful for larger universities like Loughborough to explore partnerships with large companies such as BAE Systems, he argues, than to work with small firms.

“If there was a natural harmony between universities and SMEs and it was just a case of scaling up what was already working well, then the innovation vouchers could achieve that,” Caine said. “There will be some universities that have a core delivery with SMEs and the innovation vouchers will be the icing on the cake. But it will be small scale, and it won’t be with cutting edge research-intensive universities. The scheme won’t be sufficient to change the behaviour of universities to match the needs and aspirations of SMEs.”

Caine also said the strategy should have offered more concrete details on how Catapult Centres—as the government’s planned Technology and Innovation Centres will be known—will be set up. His own experience of establishing such partnerships had been “complicated and convoluted”, he said.

The innovation vouchers were welcomed elsewhere, however. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, the group representing newer universities, says the overall strategy could have been more “radical, substantive and dynamic”, but that the vouchers were a useful tool. She also expressed concern over what she characterised as the strategy’s silence on postgraduate education.

Mariana Mazzucato of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex was cited in the economics paper that was published alongside the strategy. She says the key to any future success will be the “reuniting” of the two documents in the months ahead. The economics paper, she says, is based on the work of some top innovation thinkers—but the policy document didn’t reflect their recommendations.

“I’m looking forward to working with them to make sure that the details of it are informed by the economic paper,” she says. “The strategy document does not explain how they are going to target the 6 per cent of high-growing, innovative SMEs. We need to make sure the money is targeted, otherwise it’s going to be diluted.” Mazzucato also says innovation policy could make better use of environmental concerns to drive economic growth.