Independent scrutiny ‘key to success of UK industrial strategy’

White Paper draws ‘line under’ past failings on applied research policy, says academic

December 1, 2017
Industry

A new body that will scrutinise whether the UK government is delivering on the aims of its industrial strategy is one of several measures that policy experts believe could make this one different from similar initiatives introduced in the past.

In the industrial strategy, which was published as a White Paper on 27 November, the government pledges an additional £725 million to support university and industry research focused on four grand challenges: artificial intelligence and data, clean growth, ageing society and future transport.

The document also pledges an as-yet-unspecified uplift in quality-related research funding – the block grant for research dished out to universities according to performance – and a 20 per cent increase in research council budgets.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that the strategy “is essentially saying we got it wrong for the last 30 to 40 years”.

“It says that quite explicitly in places in terms of drawing a line under an approach that [has been] a lack of involvement in major technologies,” he said. “This finally accepts that there is an active role the state needs to play in the development of technologies.”

The strategy includes details of a new independent expert body that will be set up to monitor and measure the success of the strategy.

Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL, said that this was a “big deal”. “There have been various industrial strategies over the years; most of them have left no visible trace behind them,” he said.

“This one just might be different because, unlike so many before, this one has actually put in place a delivery mechanism.”

But this would be effective only if the independent committee were given authority to scrutinise how well the government was delivering the strategy. The committee would also need a statutory footing, like the Office of Budget Responsibility, so that it “could not be abolished by ministers who found its messages inconvenient”, Professor Reid explained.

Professor Reid added that, unlike previous industrial strategies, this one had a unique stimulus in the form of Brexit. “This is very much a strategy for what the country will look like beyond Brexit,” he said, adding that the amount of money involved is also on a “different level”.

Naomi Weir, deputy director at the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that it was imperative that the additional funding invested in research and development through the industrial strategy is well used.

She added that it was imperative that the government did not overlook the “tried and tested” funding mechanisms, such as QR and research council funding, by just pouring money into new schemes.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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