Catapult targeting needs greater accuracy

‘Big community’ not reached by prestigious programme, study finds. Elizabeth Gibney writes

July 18, 2013

Many academics still lack knowledge about what the government’s “catapult” centres are doing and how to engage with them, a study carried out on behalf of the Technology Strategy Board has found.

Since 2010, the board has committed to creating seven catapults from an initial £200 million budget. The programme is set to expand in 2015-16 into two further areas with a share of the £185 million boost allocated to the board in the government’s spending round last month.

But Simon Edmonds, director of the catapult programme, told Times Higher Education that although engagement with academia was good in places, especially in the more well-developed centres, there was still “a big community out there that we haven’t reached”.

Initiated under the previous government, catapults are physical centres intended to stimulate growth through late-stage research and development in technologies in which the UK is well placed to take advantage.

Five of the original seven catapults - in high-value manufacturing, cell therapy, offshore renewable energy, satellite applications and connected digital economy - are up and running, with two more centres, in future cities and transport systems, scheduled to be set up by next year.

Unlike Germany’s Fraunhofer centres, which inspired them, catapults are business-led and are based outside universities - with the aim that companies, rather than universities or academics, will take the lead and propel products into the market, said Mr Edmonds.

But involvement with the UK’s university research base was essential, he added. Engagement would likely come as part of the third of each centre’s income expected to be raised from competitive R&D funding.

The study, which involved interviews with 14 representatives of universities, research establishments and funders, was commissioned to discern academic views on catapults and to shape the board’s future engagement with the sector.

As well as a desire for more direct contact from the catapults, academics say that the centres should be able to demonstrate how their activities would enhance research as well as technological development.

The study also reveals a “strong feeling” that universities already have well-developed links with industry and that it is important for the centres not to duplicate what is already established.

Mr Edmonds stressed that catapults would complement universities’ existing work and were not in competition with them.

“That would be crazy … at the end of the day, this is taxpayer money in the same way as university funding,” he said.

Academics also agreed, however, that there are definite incentives to working with the programme, not least because of the “world-class” facilities the catapults are intended to have.

Mr Edmonds said that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is “a great fan” of the programme and that excitement over its potential was clear from the top names attracted as chief executives and chairs, including former chief scientific adviser Sir David King and Neil Crockett, former managing director of Cisco UK and Ireland.

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