Submission from the Association of Research
and Technology Organisations (AIRTO)
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
"Has the time come for the UKas part
of a clear economic strategyto 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
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.