At a speech at the Policy Exchange think tank on 24 January, Mr Willetts said the mainly capital spending would be spread across “eight great technologies”, as part of the government’s industrial strategy to “give business the confidence to invest and grow”.
These he identified as big data, space, robotics and autonomous systems, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, advanced materials and energy.
To underpin the investment, four research council institutes - Rothamsted Research, the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Aberystwyth, Harwell Oxford and SciTech Daresbury - would also share £65 million for infrastructure, he said.
The government would also allocate £50 million for “vital upgrades” to equipment and laboratories and £25 million to develop an Advanced Metrology Laboratory at the National Physical Laboratory, he said.
Mr Willetts said that the government had now put an additional £1.5 billion into capital spending since the 2010 spending review, during which estimates suggest capital spending was cut by almost £1.7 billion.
This investment would bring spending levels up to “roughly” what had been over the previous decade, said Mr Willetts, adding that levels for 2009-10 has been artificially high due to the previous government bringing commitments forward in its last days.
Today’s announcement included £189 million for big data and energy efficient computing, to help build capacity for analysing big data sets, as well as £25 million of for the National Space Technology Programme, which develops commercial products and services using satellite technology and data.
Some £35 million would also be allocated for centres of excellence in robotics and autonomous systems, bringing universities and businesses together, while £45 million would be spent on new facilities and equipment for advanced materials research. Another £30 million will be spent on energy technology, to create dedicated facilities to develop and test new grid scale storage technologies.
The remainder of the £600 million had been previously allocated to synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and the National Biologics Industry Innovation Centre and the National Composites Centre in Bristol, he added.
During the speech, although Mr Willetts admitted that not all the technologies were likely to succeed, he said that focusing on particular technologies was “not the same as picking winners, which notoriously become losers picking the pockets of tax payers”.
Speaking to journalists after the event, he added that the inspiration behind his policy, and its aims to bridge the so-called “valley of death” between research and industry, came from visiting the US.
There public funding was used to support technologies closer towards commercialisation, through organisations such as the National Institute of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, he said.
“It’s a legitimate role of government to bear some of the risk in a technological innovation,” he said. “Not every one of these eight technologies are going to hit the jackpot…it’s likely that some of them will,” he added.
In contrast to the approach of the US agencies, during his speech the minister likened the “upstream” approach of Research Council funding to looking “like mother birds pushing their fledglings out of the nest but with too many falling to the forest floor to be eaten by foxes”.
At the event, the minister also announced that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s next centres for doctoral training would be in areas including digital economy, renewable and nuclear energy, synthetic biology, material technologies, regenerative medicine, “data to knowledge” and advanced manufacturing. The £350 million call for new centres will be made next month.