RDAs 'too immature' to foster innovation

March 21, 2003

English regional development agencies do not have the experience needed to foster innovation, senior politicians heard this week.

The higher education white paper proposed that RDAs be given a greater role in steering the new £90 million Higher Education Innovation Fund to support reach out from universities to business.

But Sir Gareth Roberts, president of Wolfson College, Oxford, and an early board member of the Yorkshire Forward RDA, told the House of Lords science and technology select committee that although RDAs were in the best position to foster university-industry links, they lacked the necessary experience.

He said: "In England, we need a few years to build confidence to get academics to trust them. Science was not mentioned in the RDAs three years ago. Universities are now very big businesses that know how to manage large research budgets. RDAs don't have that experience."

He suggested that intermediaries along the lines of the Northwest Science Council were the best way to broker the relationship between universities and industry.

The Northwest Science Council was launched last year to help the region's science base support industry by building on its commercial and academic strengths and attracting new projects and investment. Two local vice-chancellors sit on the board alongside business leaders and scientists from industry and other public bodies.

Sir Gareth said: "You could trust that group to distribute money. There is the feeling that the RDAs in England are not mature enough to distribute money. The (Northwest) science council has a full appreciation of what's required. The RDA is not fully equipped to do the role government hopes it will in the fullness of time."

The problem was compounded by a lack of integration between the English funding council and its constituent universities, said Sir Gareth, who sits on the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Sir Gareth told the committee: "Eighty three per cent of industry never sets foot in universities, including medium to large companies. RDAs should find out why they're not taking advantage of universities."

RDAs were set up in 1999 and 2000 to regenerate the regions and to build an infrastructure. Only in the past year have they begun to look at universities. The Welsh and Scottish regional agencies were more mature, Sir Gareth said.

* The London Development Agency has made its first moves towards a regional innovation strategy, gathering 400 people from industry and higher education at its London Innovation Conference on Monday.

The conference heard that despite many advantages, the region underperformed in innovation. London businesses invested less than half the UK and European average income in research, while the capital had only 58 of the 897 Teaching Company Schemes nationwide.

Sir Derek Roberts, provost of University College London and chair of the London Innovation Steering Group, said that although universities were working hard to reach out to business, companies were not switched on and listening.

London has more than 40 higher education institutions that between them undertake a quarter of UK research. More than 40 per cent of UK venture capital is invested in London-based businesses and the capital also produces a fifth of national wealth.

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