Science needs shift in policy

February 18, 2000

MPs have expressed deep concern that the government is relying too heavily on the science base and technology transfer to address the lack of innovation in engineering and physical sciences.

The House of Commons science and technology select committee, which has just completed an inquiry into the problem, concludes that a "fundamental shift" in government policy is needed to reverse the poor innovation record of these fields.

The committee recommends this shift should be based "on the recognition that only industry can deliver an innovative economy".

Chairman Michael Clark said: "The science base, although critical to successful innovation, represents only the first step in what can be a long, complicated, expensive and risky path between invention and commercial exploitation."

In engineering and the physical sciences there has been a conspicuous lack of investment in demonstration projects, development and marketing, he said.

The committee believes exploitable knowledge emerging from engineering and physical sciences research is plentiful and sustained.

Mr Clark said: "Quality in the UK science base is good. The problems arise in translating its output into well-designed products that meet a market need. Matching technology to a market is ... industry's job. Evidence suggests this part of the process is under-resourced and that the situation is getting worse."

Business-funded R&D has grown more slowly in the UK than in other developed nations so it now ranks fifth among the G7 countries in terms of the proportion of GDP spent, Mr Clark said.

Not one witness to the committee disputed that for engineering and physical sciences-based industries innovation required a greater focus on application and development of scientific advances than in the biosciences.

The committee recommended that the Treasury extend its tax credit scheme for R&D in small firms to include larger companies and create more attractive rewards for entrepreneurs.

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