The biggest beneficiaries from the government’s innovation strategy will be Whitehall pen-pushers and the large manufacturers who already have a foot in the door, argues John Dwyer
Britain’s manufacturing R&D is seriously out of whack. Two companies, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca accounted for over a quarter of investment by the UK top 850 R&D spenders, says the latest Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) R&D scoreboard.
Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology spent more than three times as much on R&D as their nearest rival, aerospace and military. Even so, the 57 per cent military share of government-funded research is the second-highest proportion in the world. The need to rebalance our R&D portfolio,surely, is the main challenge that the DIUS’s recent Innovation Nation white paper on innovation is supposed to address.
Oddly, it fails. DIUS knows it has a problem. “Traditionally,” says a press release accompanying the White Paper, “the UK’s innovation policy has been concentrated on high-tech manufacturing.
While this will remain vitally important, it is argued that increasingly innovation applies to a wider range of products, services, business processes, models, marketing and enabling technologies used by companies, organisations, industries and sectors.”
I say oddly because, though the paper itself also acknowledges the high-tech bias, it omits the ‘wider range’ passage included in the release. Why?
To read through the white paper is to gain two distinct impressions. One is that word processors across government departments, local authorities and Lord knows how many other quangos will overheat during the next year, drafting policy documents, reports and position papers on encouraging innovation.
Some of this furious scribbling might even result in some action, and the word on the street is that the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) will be in the thick of it. Bob John, chief executive of TWI, formerly The Welding Institute, says he has great hopes of the TSB, which will bring together about £1 billion of funding over the next three years, both of its own and from the regional development agencies (RDAs). “It’s a player now,” says John. “There’s a reasonable chance the TSB could look at the things that are really effective and do more of them, and drop the things that aren’t effective.”
Dr Trevor Cross, research director of e2v, calls the TSB, “a ray of light.” He wholly supports its intention to bring together a lot of small programmes that weren’t properly supported in the old DTI, and welcomes a tenfold increase in the TSB’s staffing.
Innovation Nation says the TSB will double the number of its innovation platforms to 10 over the next three years. One such platform, launched in 2007, is a collaborative R&D programme with £20 million of support from the TSB and the Department for Transport (DfT) to accelerate the market introduction of low carbon road vehicles.
But the second impression you gain is that the main beneficiaries won’t be regional manufacturing SMEs. For example, DIUS wants, “resources permitting,” to set up a National Skills Academy in every major sector and “is actively encouraging bids from innovative industries, space and the environment.” This heralds the privatisation of chunks of the further education sector. One exemplar is the School for Design Innovation which Sir James Dyson is setting up with the government as ‘a national centre of excellence for design engineering’. Setting the curriculum alongside Dyson are Airbus and Rolls-Royce. No balance there.
Public procurement is also a major concern. Says John: “Government is still the biggest player, and it’s vital to persuade government to use its procurement policy to support technological progress.” With the CBI advising the government on procurement, however, you wonder if policy will concentrate on manufacturing or be steered by service-sector sharks desperate to get their hands on the public sector’s annual £150 billion budget for goods and services.
CBI director-general Richard Lambert, while welcoming the white paper, calls for more scientists and engineers. His statement also condemns the idea that innovation is just about ‘doing science’ or ‘inventing things’. But don’t we need a bit more of those? Else who will pay for either the quangocracy or, come to that, our steeply-subsidised financial sector?