Bridging the gap between science and industry and boosting our high-value exports takes serious national-level strategy, explains Dr Nils Hempler – head of Innovation at M Squared, one of the UK’s leading fast-growth technology firms.
As those studying sub-atomic particles and their unusual behaviour may know, chance and probability play a defining role in our (quantum) world, a role it’s all too easy to take for granted.
In stark contrast, the stable growth in the UK’s manufacturing base, which is largely underpinned by scientific discovery and industrial strategy, takes careful and deliberate planning.
The news that the government will be investing £65m in the US-run particle physics project has provided a timely boost to the UK’s science and technology industries.
The deal, which makes the UK the largest international investor in the US ‘DUNE’ programme, demonstrates the strength of UK scientific capabilities – however much they may be focused on very specialised areas.
‘DUNE’ is very likely a world-changing international scientific project to learn more about neutrinos, the most abundant sub-atomic particles in the universe, and among the most mysterious.
This new deal with the US will see some of our brightest scientists trying to answer some big questions, while our politicians have a similar task in Europe.
Although the investment represents just a fraction of the entire cost of the research going on in the US, there is immense value in the opportunities for collaboration between researchers from both sides of the Atlantic and, after Brexit, that Trans-Atlantic corridor may become a vital part of the UK’s commercial infrastructure.
UK industries – particularly value-added manufacturing and innovative industrial engineering – can prosper through these kinds of arrangements. Therefore, the government and leading UK companies must waste no time in building upon this landmark agreement in the US with similar imprints in Japan, South Korea, Europe and other parts of the world where investment in science is significant.
A deal such as this has long been overdue. While we are at no risk of letting our well-earned reputation for science and technology fade, we are yet to put science to work in our economy properly.
With the UK’s productivity in the doldrums since the financial recession – economic productivity has failed to grow for over a decade now according to official figures on UK economic output per capita – we have yet to find a real use for our high value-added innovation and research-intensive industries.
Of course, there are examples where this has worked very well. UK companies, from innovative life-sciences firm, Immunocore, to data crunchers, Improbable, rely heavily on R&D.
They have attracted huge amounts of wealth and investment to the UK, with Improbable becoming one of the UK’s most recent billion-dollar companies in May this year, following considerable investment by Japan’s Softbank.
However, manufacturing is the most R&D-intensive sector in the UK by far, accounting for 68% of business investment in R&D according to EEF; and our relatively small manufacturing base – just 10% of UK GDP, compared to more than a third of US GDP – fails to grasp the commercial benefits of research and innovation.
Wherever we rank globally in terms of investment in R&D – we could rank higher – science and innovation are our crowning achievement and should be a driving force within our economy. The Department for Business estimated in 2013 that the UK, just 1% of the world’s population, publishes 15.9% of the world’s highly-cited research papers.
Scientific research has long been the foundation of British innovations and, despite slipping down the rankings in recent decades, United Nations data on the output from our manufacturing sector shows we are still among the world’s top ten for manufacturing, with only Germany and Italy making more than the UK in all of Europe.
Our future success depends on further investment, the skill and courage needed to showcase new technologies on the global stage and, crucially, continued efforts to make space to grow our manufacturing base.
Bridging the gap between science and industry and boosting our high-value exports takes serious national-level strategy. Government intervention, on the same scale of investment as the US, is greatly needed.
The government should be increasing its support for universities the length and breadth of the UK. Some of our most successful companies have been born directly out of academic research projects, and there should be every opportunity for young talent to make their mark on the global stage.
They increase the country’s wealth and help put original UK technology and intellectual property on the world map.
While it is a great milestone for the UK, the DUNE programme must be the first of many more in the US and further afield. Britain’s reputation for achievements in science is certainly a special one – and we must now use it to establish relationships to match, all over the world.