An ideology of individualism explains why Britain has lagged so far behind Germany in building a state-backed system to commercialise academic research, according to the man behind the UK’s new Catapult network of research translation centres.
Hermann Hauser, an entrepreneur who helped convince the government to set up the network in the last Parliament, made the comments during a discussion of why successive German governments had backed the comparable Fraunhofer Institutes for decades while the UK had historically offered only patchy support.
Dr Hauser, who was born and grew up in Austria but has lived in the UK for nearly 40 years, told a conference held in London on 22 March: “I boil it down to basically one key difference: a difference of emphasising the individual in Anglo-Saxon countries, and emphasising society in continental Europe, and Germany in particular.”
So far there are across the UK Catapult centres translating research in 11 areas, ranging from high-value manufacturing to cell and gene therapy, and in last year’s Spending Review chancellor George Osborne committed to increase investment in the network.
But they remain small scale compared with Germany’s network of 67 Fraunhofer Institutes, Dr Hauser explained.
Germany had added about one institute a year since the end of the Second World War, he said, and now the network had annual revenues of nearly £2 billion, with at least a third coming from private sources.
This is more than eight times the revenue of the Catapult network, according to a follow-up analysis on its progress that Dr Hauser wrote in 2014.
One major challenge for the UK’s Catapult network was knowing whether the centres would continue to get state funding in the future, said Chris McDonald, chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, a not-for profit centre that commercialises research.
“When we look to the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany, the key to their success is the absolute assurance that government will be there as a partner in the long term,” he argued.
“What history tells us in the UK is that whilst we started out with good intentions twice in the past that wasn’t sustained,” he told The Future for the Catapult Network – Scale, Scope and Putting Policy into Practice, organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum.
“Whilst politicians might make positive statements…to be absolutely certain about technology investments, we have to be sure that this goes beyond rhetoric and is embedded in the culture of the country,” Mr McDonald continued.
Birgitte Andersen, chief executive of the Big Innovation Centre, told delegates that the UK suffered from inconsistency in policymaking. “If a minister changes, or a government changes, we have a stop-go policy,” she said.
She added that the UK was not good at being patient with investments. “We want to see the market take off right away.”
Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for culture and the digital economy, urged a greater recognition of the role that the state played in innovation, and warned that the UK was in a “bad zone” between the more “statist” approach of continental Europe and the US.