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Grassroots R&D is a foundation for building back better

Close-to-market innovation across the UK can drive recovery, say Patrick Bonnett and Steve Yianni

The Chancellor’s budget in March marked a shift in plans to support economic growth through investment in innovation, infrastructure and skills. 

Out went the Industrial Strategy launched by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in 2017. Instead, the focus is now on a Treasury-led plan for growth. Known as Build Back Better, the plan has been framed as a refocusing, rather than a junking, of the industrial strategy. This is important because the societal challenges and global market opportunities identified in 2017 remain. 

Pressing concerns

The climate crisis and demographic crisis are as pressing today as ever. The world must still cut emissions by 11.7 per cent each year if future generations are to thrive. The market associated with goods and services for an ageing population is still enormous, estimated at more than €3.2 trillion annually in the EU alone. 

Both crises offer global trade opportunities for the UK, with its world-class expertise and international reputation for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

The Industrial Strategy galvanised applied researchers and technologists, and won international admiration. So, which bits of the strategy should we try hardest to hang on to, and how can these inform and complement Build Back Better? 

A plan for growth needs to harness assets across the country. Build Back Better rightly emphasises the UK’s geographically dispersed R&D and innovation assets as a means of maximising the benefits of innovation for local economies and building on local strengths. 

The UK is immensely strong in close-to-market R&D and in pulling it through to market as products and services. Much of this activity is represented by two organisations: the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations (Airto), and the UK Science Park Association (UKSPA).

Airto is the foremost membership body for organisations operating in the UK’s innovation, research and technology sector. With a combined turnover of £6.9 billion and more than 57,000 scientific and technical staff, its members work at the interface between academia and industry. Its policy priorities are increased investment in the UK’s development and innovation assets, mindful of the opportunities highlighted in the 2017 Industrial Strategy. 

UKSPA represents more than 130 research campuses, science parks, technology incubators, and similar locations. Collectively, these house over 6,000 high-tech companies with 120,000 employees, comprising some of the nation’s most skilled scientists and innovative business leaders. 

Together, the sectors represented by these two organisations play a fundamental part in driving productivity. They include hotbeds of innovation operating in cities, such as the Met Office and National Physical Laboratory, and hubs of activity in non-urban areas, such as the European Marine Science Park near Oban, the Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus, and Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre. 

Government commitments to increased public investment in science and innovation are welcome. Measures to support innovative companies in attracting investment, along with support for small and medium-sized companies working in IT and management, are particularly positive. 

A focus on levelling up also needs to consider how best to exploit the expertise and assets held within the UK’s science infrastructure. Some enterprise zones, created in the Industrial Strategy to give businesses tax and planning incentives, already include large-scale developments such as Discovery Park in Kent, and Alderley Park and Sci-Tech Daresbury, both in Cheshire. There is a case for giving similar relief to all UKSPA members.

In the zone

Many science parks also fall within Life Science Opportunity Zones. This designation could be extended to create, say, Innovation Opportunity Zones, enabling companies to attract national and international investment and link R&D expertise with business skills. LSOZs were launched in November 2016 with Charnwood Campus. The designation lasts 10 years.

If the plan for growth is to truly give the economy a post-pandemic boost, it needs to build on the best of the old. It also needs to fully exploit the innovation and development assets spread across the UK, recognising the considerable investments made over the past 30 years. That way we not only build back better but also build back strategically and maximise impact for the UK economy and society as quickly as possible.

Patrick Bonnett is vice chair of the UK Science Park Association and a board member of the Association for Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations. Steve Yianni is president of Airto

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight