Setting out the plans for innovation at Policy Lunchbox

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

Policy Lunchbox was privileged on Friday to host the first presentation on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) new Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth since its launch last Thursday. Grant Peggie, Head of Innovation and Investment at BIS, gave a run down of the key points to the assembled members of the Policy Lunchbox community over mince pies and mulled wine. Here’s a summary of what he had to say.

Whilst the UK is host to world class researchers and punches above its weight in terms of pure research output, we are not as good at encouraging and developing strategic partnerships with the rest of the ‘innovation ecosystem’ – compared to near neighbours such as France, Germany and Sweden, and also other countries like the USA, said Grant. As well as places where research takes place, business, finance and bodies such as standards offices must all work together to support ‘innovation for growth’. Grant also emphasised that policy makers need to understand that it is important for innovation to take place in all sectors – not just in traditional areas like high-tech industry – including fields like utilities and construction.

The Strategy document sets out medium and long term mechanisms through which the government intends to support innovation for growth, having identified it as something we need to exploit. The timescale (as laid out in a section at the end of the document) for instigating all the projects goes no further than 2015, as the government has been unwilling to commit to longer term plans during this lasting period of austerity. However, Grant was reassuring when questioned about short-termism, stating that the announced Technology Strategy Board (TSB) focus areas – such as graphene development – would have lasting legacies. For example, the Graphene Global Research and Innovation Hub (possibly to be established in Manchester, although the location decision rests with the TSB and Research Councils in accordance with the Haldane principle) should be operational within four years, by which time some of the other policies laid out in the document should help support its long-term activity. The Government has committed £50m to graphene research through the spending review period and has pinned hopes on profitable applications being developed in the UK.

On the other strategic areas highlighted, we heard that the location of a new ‘Cell Therapy Catapult Centre’ (the less said about this moniker the better) in London would be decided next year, although there was pressure to land it in East London. This will also be the home of the Open Data Institute, to be founded in Shoreditch and led by Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. People will notice that this isn’t actually a new announcement, and indeed Grant admitted that not much of the chapter from which this announcement and several others can be found (entitled ‘Knowledge and Innovation’) is actually new, but sets out what the Government has committed to  since this spring/summer. How the Institute will fit in with the opening up of NHS data announced by David Cameron as part of the new Strategy for UK Life Sciences remains to be seen. The datasets to be prioritised have been named as transport, weather and health.

Concerning the Research Councils, changes are afoot. Multi-institutional bids for funding will be allowed according to a framework to be published in February, providing new opportunities for consortia such as the N8 group (the Universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) to apply for funding together. Furthermore, groups such as charities not based within Universities will also be able to apply for funding. This means that there will be more funding streams, although there won’t be more money up for grabs. Particularly regarding the new rules on consortia, this could lead to very large funding awards being made, with one potential knock-on effect being the restriction of traditional award recipients even further – in what are already straitened times. Grant agreed that this was a risk, although this policy did come out of consultation with universities. Another outcome could be on the institutional and geographical spread of awards, which are already a contentious issue. On the other side, it is hoped that larger, consortia based funding could lead to more matched funding bids from pharmaceutical companies. These changes will certainly need to be follow closely next year. The Research Councils have also agreed to invest £2 million in the development of a UK ‘Gateway to Research’. Plans remain sketchy, but should allow open access to Research Council funded research data and other information by 2013. The scheme aims to be flexible and allow for non-Research Council research to be catalogued here too. This has the potential to be a really exciting and useful resource – if they get it right regarding the usability of data – especially for publicising research which could be commercialised. Smaller companies without extensive access to horizon-scanning resources could have greatly improved access and more business relationships may arise.

The bottom line, what else is new, and forthcoming work

In total, according to BIS figures, we heard that £610 million has been committed to capital in science since January. The headline announcements new to this Statement are highlighted in the BIS press release. However, as already alluded to, there is no ’10 year plan’ or similar long-term vision as the science community would like to see, representing a real long-term commitment to science as a driver of growth. We may expect reassessments to be made towards the end of the spending review period (ending in 2015).

Some of the other plans we received a run-down of are:

  • The Economics Paper published alongside the main strategy document focuses on innovation (and is the first to do so since the mid ‘90s) and Grant revealed that a separate analysis of science would be published next year.
  • As well as Cell Therapy, the other Catapult Centres will be High Value Manufacturing and Offshore Renewable Energy, with three more to be confirmed.
  • The previously announced Biomedical Catalyst Fund will total £180 million, half each from the TSB and the Medical Research Council (MRC). This fund will be focussed on commercial medicine and proof of concept research. The TSB investment was newly announced in the Strategy for UK Life Sciences released earlier in the week.
  • There will be an extra £75 million for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) through the resurrected Smart scheme – to come from the TSB – as first announced in the Autumn Statement. The TSB will also implement a new innovation voucher programme to support collaboration between SMEs and external knowledge providers. The first vouchers will be awarded next year.
  • The Launchpad initiative will be extended – providing intensive support for specific sectoral clusters in chosen locations, with the aim of attracting follow-up ‘angel investment’. Grant hinted that a life science Launchpad was being considered for the Scottish central belt.
  • The Red Tape Challenge will be extended, investigating the bureaucratic barriers that inhibit innovation – including those set by government. Further challenges identified are the barriers posed by procurement methods.
  • Tax credits to incentivise research and development in the UK will be introduced in Budget 2013.
  • The TSB will gain more staff to make sure we can leverage as much EU funding as possible in the future.
  • We are going to embark on a joint research agreement with China, funding bi-lateral projects. Joint research calls with the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology are expected during 2012.

The delivery plan makes it clear that all the policies must be followed through, although the mechanisms have not yet been decided.

Naturally, Grant wanted to highlight all the positives of the Strategy, but as he said, having RCUK and the CBI saying good things is a good sign that they seem to have hit several right notes. And, whilst the Strategy certainly emphasises innovation rather than research, Grant explained that the rationale for this was two-fold: firstly that there was no desire to “throw research up in the air again”; and secondly that whilst research is a vital strength of the UK, innovation is in greater need of attention, particularly concerning commercial exploitation.

Last word – still no commitment on postgraduates

Grant was candid when asked about the lack of focus on post-graduates in recent government publications, acknowledging this point but regrettably not revealing any firm intention for anything to be done. However, he reported strong awareness that this is a live issue, citing the influence of Twitter as a significant pressure for a concerted effort from BIS in this area. The strategy is also noticably silent on visa restrictions for talented science graduates.

Related reading

Innovation and Research Strategy, and Economics Paper: http://www.bis.gov.uk/innovatingforgrowth
Strategy for UK Life Sciences: http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/innovation/docs/s/11-1429-strategy-for-uk-life-sciences
Autumn Statement: http://cdn.hm-treasury.gov.uk/autumn_statement.pdf

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