Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 50

Submission from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL)


    —  NPL believes that such a policy is both necessary and desirable as it ensures a transparency and scrutiny of investment of Government funding;—  This decision-making process is consistent with "industrial activism", is well understood by NPL, and has been implemented to direct our own funding for a number of years;

    —  NPL suggests the critical issue that Government must debate is the required outcome of this investment in science—it is vital that demonstrable evidence is provided to support claims of economic and social impact; and

    —  NPL would support an increase in funding allocated to near-market solutions to ensure innovations make it over the final large hurdles to exploitation.

  The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is one of the UK's leading science and research facilities. It is a world-leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate standards, science and technology. NPL contains a National Measurement Institute developing and maintaining the national measurement standards, and supporting infrastructures required to ensure quality of life and economic benefit. NPL is DIUS's largest directly-owned science asset with world-leading experts in important areas such as materials, the environment, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and knowledge transfer that enable UK businesses to stay internationally competitive.

  To deliver this role NPL, via the National Measurement System, has a limited budget to spend. Measurement can cover a huge range of topics, so for many years NPL has found itself in the position to make decisions about which research areas to invest in. NPL has a sophisticated process to formulate programmes and analyse them against potential impact, future and current market requirements and sustaining world-leading positions. NPL use this to inform our advisory panels of areas of research and potential outcomes to aid the decision making process. We find this process useful to help us challenge the reason for investment and believe this makes our choices more robust as a consequence.

  The consultation must address the issue of desired outcome for the science; which will in turn dictate the balance of investment between scientific discovery and the translation of new science for economic and social benefit. Currently the UK is seen as leader in science research but the government investment in translational R&D is much less than our international competitors. This clearly cannot be simply left to the market place. If the UK wishes to invest in innovation to deliver economic and social benefit then it will need to do more to see it through the expensive final stages of developing products to reach the market. Clear policy on the types and balance of investment and expected outcomes would be welcome.

  NPL has a small fund (Measurement of Innovators) which is designed to help SMEs with near market products make the final steps of product demonstration or innovation through measurement by making use of Government funded assets (both facilities and people). Over the past four years we have helped over 400 companies and the scheme is constantly oversubscribed. This is money well spent; the first 200 participants of the scheme saw a total annual increase in sales and profits of £10.3 million.

  World-leading scientific teams usually make ground-breaking scientific discoveries. These teams also attract and support high value-added businesses to the UK. So the UK needs world-leading science teams both to lead scientific discovery and to deliver economic and social benefit to the UK. To be world-leading requires knowledge of, and advantage, over competing teams elsewhere. If the UK is to support such scientific teams, it requires focusing investment on them, which inevitably means less support elsewhere. This has a positive effect in creating centres of excellence attracting clusters of innovative companies, and inward investment to the UK. It also strengthens the UK science base and aligns skills with economic opportunity or national challenges.

  NPL broadly supports the focus on cross-disciplinary areas such as the low carbon economy, data security, environmental change, lifelong health, and advanced manufacturing (including nanotechnology) already identified by the Royal Society, Research Councils and other bodies as important; these are areas where the UK can effectively exploit its competitive advantage. To this list, we would also add measurement science that underpins many of the other areas and provides the rigorous scientific infrastructure to support cost-effective regulation and technical innovation. It is important to provide clear evidence of the impact of the proposed work; thus, for example, DIUS economists have shown that a £6 million investment in the National Measurement System gives a ROI of £410 million to GDP. We recognise that the recession provides a particularly challenging environment and believe that targeted funding is also required to preserve the key science and technology skills needed to recover effectively.

April 2009

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