Guest leader: Stop R&D talent going to waste

The creation of an Innovation Index is a long-overdue opportunity to right funding wrongs, argues Les Ebdon

August 7, 2008

Innovation Nation, published in March by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), charged the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) with the development of an Innovation Index for the UK.

Given some of the current narrow descriptors of innovation, this can only be a good thing. New definitions may even lead to the novel acknowledgement that innovation in the public sector and universities has been somewhat more impressive than politicians would have us believe. Indeed, those who suggest that economic and social nirvana will be delivered through reduced public-sector investment and delivery need to take a more careful look at countries such as Sweden. There, much higher levels of public investment have been a significant factor in ensuring that it consistently outperforms the UK in innovation assessments.

So the Innovation Index is serious stuff. The Nesta project will take two years to report. So should the Government wait for sign-off or until other initiatives outlined in Innovation Nation come to fruition? Absolutely not.

Having delivered a much-enhanced Science and Innovation Budget in the past ten years, DIUS and the Treasury have a golden opportunity early in 2009 to lay the foundation for UK innovation for the next decade. With almost £1.9 billion to be allocated in research funding by 2010-11, the challenge will be to ensure that distribution of this cash by the funding councils does not simply mirror familiar and historic patterns.

In 2002 - the last time this opportunity arose - ministers were persuaded to concentrate funding on research of international significance despite the fact that the volume and quality of research in all UK universities had increased significantly since 1990. Over the past five years, 76 per cent of this funding has benefited just 15 per cent of our 120 universities.

Few people outside the sector, let alone the businesses and trade unions that lobbied hard for increased investment in science and manufacturing before the first Warwick Agreement with Labour, have realised that research of national significance has simply not been funded as a result of this decision.

Yet as DIUS recognises, innovation is essential to future economic prosperity and quality of life. To raise productivity, foster competitive businesses, meet the challenges of globalisation and to live within our environmental and demographic limits, the UK must excel in all types of innovation.

Research and development are key to improving goods, services, skills and operations, and universities are central to the provision of this research. The economy is large and diverse. Companies, public-sector bodies and not-for-profit organisations vary in size, activity and requirements. Research needs to reflect this diversity and meet the demands of the many different elements of the economy at national, regional and local level as well as globally.

To be effective, research needs to be readily available and easily accessible. Concentrating funding on a few universities wastes the huge wealth of practical experience elsewhere. It limits opportunities for students, the innovators of tomorrow. It also limits the capacity of universities to offer postgraduate courses for home, European Union and international students - a factor too often forgotten by those who simply advocate more of the same.

So let's work on an Innovation Index for 2010, but let's also ensure that funding decisions in 2009 support the infrastructure for research and innovation in all universities. If ministers are serious about innovation for all the nation, nothing less will do.

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