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Unleash Innovation – will the government have a positive innovation strategy post-Friday 13th?


20th Dec 2019

This satirical festive blog represents the views of the author. Reddie & Grose remains politically neutral.

I could start with a cliché suggesting that the latest UK election result has set the cat amongst the pigeons. It is clear to many of us, however, that the cat has been in the loft for quite a while… and it’s had kittens. Thus, the Midlands and the North and chunks of Wales have voted Conservative, Boris has a “stonking” majority, and the UK will leave the EU in January. So is this the death knell for invention and innovation in the UK? Should academics, and researchers, and developers (and patent attorneys) seek alternative employment? Should we all, perhaps feeling a little doomsterish or gloomsterish, take to our beds for the next five years to sleep through it all?

I suggest not.

A suggestion of a potential government innovation strategy was teased in a pre-election Blogpost from Dominic Cummings. In his Blogpost, Mr. Cummings eulogises a review paper titled “A resurgence of the Regions: rebuilding innovation capacity across the whole UK”, written by Professor Richard Jones of University of Sheffield. It’s worth a read. The following observations, of many in the paper, struck me.

Firstly, while the UK has enviable academic capabilities and track-record in fundamental innovation, there is a national weakness in translational innovation. Translational innovation is the ongoing process to convert fundamental ideas into ever-improved and desirable products and processes. To quote Professor Jones “the underrated backbone of productivity growth is the relentless incremental improvement of existing products and processes.” Other countries do this better than we do and get greater return on their innovation investment. To be successful, we need to become more successful at research, development, and deployment (RD & D?).

Secondly, there is an enormous regional disparity in terms of innovation, which is mirrored (or perhaps caused by) a disparity in R&D spending. Some 31% of UK R&D spending (and 41% of UK public R&D spending) takes place in Oxford, Cambridge, and inner West London. A virtuous circle promoting success in these three places includes a strong academic environment, skilled workforce, high levels of job availability, and high levels of public and industrial investment. By contrast, much of the rest of the country receives little investment, and, therefore, is home to a low skilled workforce with no motivation to acquire skills that make them suitable for jobs that don’t exist.

Professor Jones wants to build up the innovation capacity of those regions of the UK which currently are economically lagging. New centres of translational research should be created, he says. These new centres need to act as nuclei to develop the innovative capacity of previously neglected regions. Vibrant economies have a high level of R&D spend from both public and industrial sources, and government needs to invest itself to encourage investment from others. One benefit of new translational research centres would be stronger partnerships between academia and industry (as successfully implemented, for example, by the Warwick Manufacturing Group and Jaguar Land Rover, or by Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Rolls Royce). Productivity and innovation need to be at the heart of central government.

What are the chances of the government taking innovation into its heart and making real investments to propel a long-term innovation strategy? I feel your cynicism! However, I have hope. More than that, I can direct you to the government’s pre-election manifesto, which includes a section headed “Unleash Innovation”. Of course, the precise worth of a political promise is typically understood to be a large multiple of nowt, and the imperative to “Unleash Innovation” does conjure amusingly Pythonesque images of Boris in a toga. However, there are millions of politically volatile voters in the neglected regions of the UK who are desperate for opportunities, opportunities that will not appear from the void. These voters will not forgive a serving of nothing and they are represented by nervous MPs that know it. For this reason, I suggest that a relatively ambitious innovation strategy will be implemented as soon as possible.

So…after reading the tea leaves in Professor Jones’ paper… what if the government does take innovation to its heart; what if research and development investment in previously neglected regions is increased; what if new centres of translational innovation are created and properly funded; what if new collaborations between industry and academia are fostered, and new networks to drive innovation are created?

You wouldn’t want to sleep through all that would you?

If…

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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Alan Bates
Partner
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