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Innovation in a cold climate

Luke Georghiou, professor of science and technology policy and management at the University of Manchester, reflects on the government’s innovation and research strategy.

Increasingly, white papers have become a stock-taking exercise where previously announced initiatives make a collective re-appearance. In a period of economic chill winds it is not surprising that ministers want to spread what warmth they can muster over a number of occasions.

In the government’s Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth, published this month, even Technology and Innovation Centres get a new lease of life and, in at least one innovation, avoid being named after an august figure from the history of science. Instead they have acquired the brand ‘Catapult Centres’, which for readers of a certain age will bring to mind the Just William stories and the odd broken window.

Nonetheless, a careful reading of the strategy shows that there is new thinking coming through and an underlying coherence of approach across at least some of the spectrum.

Some of the credit lies with the consistent economic foundation laid down in a high-quality background paper published alongside the strategy. This anchors some—but not all—of the measures in evidence from research, statistics and international experiences. It also sets out the case for the contribution of innovation and research to growth and productivity, arguments that cannot be made too often in the current circumstances. Another key message is that innovation requires infrastructure to feed it with the necessary information. From these arguments comes a theme that pervades the main strategy—the importance of connectivity, manifested as collaborative interactions (nationally and globally), clusters and interactive learning.

Rumour has it that the exercise started life as a document solely on innovation, with research being added when it was crowded out of the higher education white paper that was published in June. So it is not surprising that universities feature primarily in their roles as players in the innovation ecosystem. Even in these cases, many issues are postponed, awaiting the outcome of Tim Wilson’s review of business and university links. One welcome initiative finds its way through though—innovation vouchers are to be used to encourage small and medium-sized businesses to break the ice in working with universities. The promised budget of £1 million per year means it can only be seen as a pilot but the West Midlands region has already operated a version of this with some success.

A positive feature is that the government is recognising that, in the face of global competition, some sectors and some emerging technologies need as big a bet as they can muster if the UK is to have any chance of staying competitive. In those areas, resources have to be mobilised in far faster and more focused forms than the normal bureaucratic channels can manage. The government’s life sciences plan was published separately but in the strategy, synthetic biology, energy–efficient computing, energy harvesting and of course graphene are all singled out.

Postgraduate education is an issue that has fallen between the cracks of the higher education white paper and the strategy. A real threat exists as a consequence of the new undergraduate fee regime, with the overseas market also being squeezed as much by the perceptions as by the reality of visa policies. In an age of global communication, rhetoric designed to please a gathering of party faithful in a backwoods constituency finds its way rather quickly to the talent pools of Bangalore and Beijing, leaving universities and local economies to face the consequences.

From the perspective of innovation, perhaps the most interesting chapter is the last one. Called New Innovation Challenges, it gathers several nascent initiatives including the much-heralded opening up of access to public sector data, estimated to have a potential commercial value of £16 billion per year. Interestingly, it could be that quantitative social scientists are best placed to realise this value. A seemingly mandatory swipe at red tape conceals a more important underlying commitment for regulation to move swiftly to keep up with and support rather than inhibit the opportunities opened up by innovation. Inducement prizes and challenges (think John Harrison’s clocks and Longitude) also enter the toolbox. The more established and potentially far more potent instrument, the mobilisation of government’s power as a lead customer, is addressed mainly by targeting gaps in knowledge and capability to recognise and manage innovation through training and coaching. The Small Business Research Initiative gets a modest financial boost and a strong endorsement.

In the custom of today’s documents, we end up with a long to do list which summarises the actions (including budgets), lead agencies and timescale. The fact that there are over forty of these says something about the scope of the approach but, to be fair, innovation systems are complex entities that are not amenable to simple solutions. Despite the large number of actions, the total budget commitments are relatively low. What we have here may be the answer to a question: “What can we do for innovation without spending money we haven’t got?” With that constraint, it is a fair effort but only with the caveat that those policy experiments that succeed will need in the future to be scaled up by at least an order of magnitude if they are to register on the macroeconomic scale.