Foresight has sent a message across the world that the UK has an outstandingly innovative science base, says William Stewart.
It is almost three years since the Government launched its Technology Foresight programme - a new brainchild fostered on an ill-prepared science, engineering and technology (SET) community. The better private-sector companies had been doing Foresight for years, but the idea that the public sector should be involved in it as well was alien and novel.
The reasons were clear. We were a small country, carrying out 5 per cent of the world's research with 1 per cent of the world's population. We were facing increased competition from overseas, particularly from the United States and Japan, but also from the tigers of the Pacific Rim. The United Kingdom was not such a Utopian state that it could dispense with the skills of its scientists, engineers and technologists in supporting the dual goals of higher national prosperity and an enhanced quality of life. Indeed no country can.
So, if these were to be the overriding objectives of science and technology policy, while sustaining a strong science base, who better to decide what should be done than the practitioners themselves? It seemed simple enough.
There were a few twitchy egoists about (there still are) but, by and large, the community had endorsed the 1993 white paper ("The white paper is good news", wrote The THES) and was broadly on side in relation to Foresight.
What started out as a modest venture by the Office of Science and Technology turned out to be the most detailed Foresight exercise ever, anywhere in the world. Yes, it was rushed; yes, it asked a lot from overworked OST staff; yes, the participants, all 10,000 of them, were set very short deadlines. But the general enthusiasm for the venture and the wish to be involved became a welcome and unstoppable driving force. By May 1995, the 15 sectoral reports and the Foresight steering group report were published on schedule. Twenty thousand copies have been sold with requests for 140,000 of the published leaflets.
I said at the launch that Foresight would make a bigger impact on UK science, engineering and technology policy than the rest of the white paper combined. That has been the case. But, has it achieved its objectives? Quite frankly, it is a little early to tell, but the signs are very encouraging.
The Government can take considerable credit from the exercise. It has engaged the scientific community in an exercise never before undertaken in this country and it has worked hard to ensure that the essential but delicate balance between blue skies and strategic/applied research has been protected. The pendulum, rightly, had to swing towards the strategic/applied sector, but it must not swing too far. I do not accept the view of academics who suggest that innovative research cannot be done by, or in association with, industry. This is a nonsense and there are Nobel prizes to prove it. A university professor does not lose his innovative capabilities the moment he leaves poorly paid academic cloisters and gets paid his real worth in industry. Indeed, with better equipment and facilities there, he may be considerably more innovative.
But there is another side to the coin - it is dangerous to believe, for example, that only public-sector committees dominated by industrialists are any good. This needs careful watching and may already be sending wrong signals to a beleaguered academic community.
Second, the bench scientist who chooses to go down the Foresight road, rather than concentrate all endeavours on blue-skies research (a worthy goal for the very best, who should be supported by the research councils and others-and, as buckyballs show, can have enormous applied potential) now has the prospect of funding not only to generate scientific results but also to apply them or to work in clearly applied areas of research.
The Government has directed Pounds 30 million of OST funding to support Foresight priorities. This has attracted another Pounds 62 million of industrial funding. There is no evidence hitherto that industry would have put up this additional money if Foresight had not come along.
More than 500 outline proposals were submitted to the Foresight Challenge competition, and while not all the applications were successful, many were passed on to other funding sources such as the research councils, the LINK scheme and many departments were successful eventually.
Third, industry felt that the public and the private sectors were at last working together and that their needs were being listened to by the Government. In fact the provision of Pounds 30 million is small beer compared, for example, to the Pounds 100 million of funding which the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council receives for basic research. There has also been, for example, an upsurge in LINK funding and the Independent Research and Technology Organisations have been setting up their own strategic features forums.
New industries have become involved in joint venturing. Before Foresight who would have wagered on the financial institutions setting up a Foresight Challenge project on risk with the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, or of collaborative programmes on virtual reality for retailing between high street retailers and the public sector?
Fourth, the Foresight process has become embedded within science policy thinking across the political spectrum. Virtually any speech by any politician on science will mention Foresight and its importance.
Finally, and perhaps most significant, Foresight has sent a signal to high-technology companies across the world, and at home, that not only does the UK possess an outstandingly innovative science base, but that it is genuinely interested in technological application and in becoming the true centre for innovative technologies and their application in Europe. The UK today is providing an environment in which innovation and its application can and does flourish.
Today, the emphasis is on global partnerships, and on alliances embedded within a country which has one of the strongest science bases in Europe. It is easy to underestimate the impact which Foresight has made globally on companies seeking to settle in Europe and which have finely-tuned industrial antennae. The fact that over 40 per cent of inward investment into the European Union has come to the UK is no real surprise. Foresight in its own way, in the past, as in the future, will help to ensure that this is an ongoing reality.
Sir William Stewart was the architect of the Technology Foresight Programme as the Government's chief scientific adviser.