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19/04/2014

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If only!

Phil Willis wants to back winners

I recall a comment that frequently appeared in my annual progress reports from school: ‘He has the potential to succeed.’  A comment inevitably linked with the proviso ‘if only’ – followed by a string of qualifying requirements that my father seemed to obsess about!  As I now observe the coalition government strive to find a way out of the current economic morass, I find myself applying the same epithets to their endeavours. Indeed, the opening sentence in the December 2011 Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Innovation and research strategy for growth begins, ‘The UK has the potential to be a world leader in innovation.’1

Interestingly, few serious commentators question that assumption, based as it is on the UK’s outstanding research base. Despite having a mere one per cent of the global population, 16 per cent of the world’s top 200 research universities are in the UK – four in the top 10 – with our academics producing 14 per cent of the most highly-cited papers. Equally, few leading economists question the thesis that it will be science, innovation and engineering that will drive economies out of recession with a prize (according to the International Monetary Fund) of a share in the $20 trillion (about £640 billion) expansion in the world economy between 2010 and 2015.

Take the plunge!

Of course, politicians inevitably have competing priorities: reducing an historic deficit, balancing the budget by 2015, coping with near record levels of unemployment amongst the 16-24 year olds, reforming the welfare state, re-engineering public services (particularly health).  All take valuable time and resources and have short-term political consequences as 2015 and the next general election looms.

These are the ‘if only’ caveats for timidity when faced with the real opportunities to re-focus and rebuild UK prosperity long term on the back of science, technology and engineering.  The time has come for government to stop preparing yet more well meaning strategy documents such as the excellent Strategy for UK life sciences.  It must remove the barriers to delivery, invest in our brightest people and our more interesting technologies and accept there will be risks and some failures.  The previous government began embarking on a strategy of ‘industrial activism’ with powerful backing from the likes of Lord Drayson, but got cold feet as an election approached. The November 2011 Life Sciences strategy follows in a similar vein so, to be blunt, it is time to start backing winners!

Sauce for the goose

Nor is there a shortage of contenders. To date we have merely played at the exploitation of the £3.2 trillion global market in environmental goods and services despite having a world-leading research base. According the BIS Growth review framework for advanced manufacturing  the UK market in this area could be worth £150 billion and employ 1.2 million people. Other areas from satellite technology, robotics and aerospace to plastic electronics, photonics and nanotechnologies all come into contention.

To exploit our research base, the availability of resources to organisations like the Technology Strategy Board need to be raised by a factor of 10 using in part the government’s £220 billion procurement budget as a catalyst to drive innovation forward.  Put simply: if, as a nation, we can afford to write off £650 million following the sale of Northern Rock to Virgin Media  and continue to underwrite £22bn of toxic debts for the same organisation, surely investing in cutting edge technologies in partnership with the private sector to provide an economic base for future prosperity is an easy call?

2012 promises to be a hugely challenging year but our science base has given us many reasons for optimism – let us hope by the end of year report we don’t say ‘if only!’

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Lord Willis of Knaresborough
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities and a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee
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