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

Memorandum 61

Submission from the Association of Research and Technology Organisations (AIRTO)


"Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?"

  Two aspects of competitive advantage are relevant to this debate. The first relates to the UK's ability to sustain its position in the global economy, through trading and economic activity. The second relates to competitiveness of the research base in generating new knowledge, whatever the purpose. These two aspects of competitiveness are linked and the linkage should perhaps be debated more fully. There has been an assumption that highly competitive research will feed through to economic and social benefit, but the mechanisms and processes that capture the benefits are poorly understood in some quarters and poorly supported. The timescales are also unclear and uncertain in many cases, particularly in the case of the more fundamental areas of scientific research.

A policy that brings greater purpose, direction and support to stimulating relevant, high quality research outcomes and leveraging them into business activity that is well positioned in global markets would potentially be of great benefit to the UK. Therefore we offer the following perspectives:

    —  Our strong belief is that a policy of the kind proposed is essential to underpin the sustainability of a strong research base in the UK and the beneficial impact that it can make on the UK economy and quality of life.

    —  AIRTO's members and their business clients are very familiar with the opportunity assessment and prioritisation processes that are required to operate within such a policy. They are also familiar with the wide variety of opinions and the requirements for change management that the introduction of such a policy will bring.

    —  In order to promulgate better understanding, and ultimately acceptance, of such a policy, a key area for discussion will be the nature of what is required to capture and deliver economic and social benefit from publically funded research (and why this is necessary in the first place). This is particularly important where the research is not necessarily aimed directly at economic or social objectives but instead at the generation of new knowledge and at the education and training of a highly skilled workforce. A key issue has to do with the relationship between the public sector and private business and which constraints should or should not attach to the exploitation of publically funded research work.

    —  The likely result of adopting the proposed policy will be an increase in the research undertaken to tackle some of the major challenges facing society and our economy (challenge led research, grand challenges etc). It should also result in increased resources for near-market work, research and education in engineering and design, activities which lead to risk reduction, operation of knowledge transfer programmes and the support for the proof of concept programmes needed to embed new technology into successful businesses.

  It is widely recognised and accepted that the UK has an excellent, high quality and highly productive research base. This attracts collaborators and investors to our research institutions, produces high quality research staff and trained graduates, generates new intellectual property and raises the profile and prestige of the UK on the world stage. The challenge is to ensure that the UK captures the greatest possible economic benefit from this work, thereby assisting in the generation of the wealth needed to sustain our economy, quality of life and public investment in research.

  Whilst some of the largest high technology businesses can capitalise on the research outputs unaided, the complexity of the processes, the time-scales involved and the risks inherent in commercial uptake mean that public funding to assist with proof of concept and de-risking of technology is needed to enable the majority of the UK's businesses to take on the results of new research. The UK spends too little on these near-market activities and demonstrates a greater level of risk aversion than many of its global competitors. Leaving it to business and the market alone will not work.

  The continued recognition that there is a problem in the exploitation of our research and development and the desire to do something about it has led to a plethora of new initiatives and new bodies to deliver them. We believe that, wherever possible, increased support should be delivered through existing initiatives and organisations, using both public sector bodies and institutions and private sector resources that have the required skill sets and delivery capacity.

  Alignment of excellence in research with areas of competitiveness in the economic sense will require management and appropriate incentivisation of the academic community to shift focus and leave behind some of the more mature, familiar and traditional areas of work. To bring this about, there may have to be some lessening of funding in traditional areas of responsive mode research in favour of newly targeted areas of research.

  This debate also introduces the notion of `who is the customer' for the research, be it the tax payer, the government, its funding bodies or, arguably, the business community in general.

  Perhaps Lord Drayson should chair the debate, involving DIUS, BERR, the CBI and the constituencies they represent as a minimum. A combination of tasks undertaken by the aforementioned stakeholders, coupled with open meetings to discuss options and findings, would be appropriate. AIRTO would be pleased to engage, both to contribute the combined experience of its members to the discussion forum and to help channel information from its wide range of business and industrial communities.

  Such a consultation needs to be carefully led to achieve a good balance of buy-in through discussion and efficient delivery by a tight, task-driven group of expert team members. Good communication through discussion is time consuming and costly but worthwhile if it achieves inclusivity, motivation and buy-in from all concerned.

April 2009

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