Comment: We must keep late-stage R&D in the UK

MacRobert Award Chair of Judges Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS looks at what the UK can do to avoid an innovation exodus

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More than a quarter of all UK workers are part of the nation’s engineering economy, yet our standing as an engineering superpower is underappreciated. There are some stellar examples of UK companies bringing world-leading engineering innovation to market. You only need to look at Quanta Dialysis Technologies, the winner of last year’s Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award for UK engineering innovation, to see that. 

The Alcester-based business showed how innovating with a global market in mind helped them to develop a compact dialysis machine suitable for home and hospital use that will transform the experience of patients with kidney failure world-wide. 

It took more than a decade to progress from the initial idea to launching in the UK and US, a timeframe many other businesses in the UK can’t begin to contemplate because the government and wider UK innovation ecosystem isn’t providing the necessary support for them to do so.

Investing in innovation

In its last Autumn Statement, the UK government committed to investing £20bn in R&D by 2024-25. However, much of this financial support will be focused on getting the initial spark of an idea off the ground, meaning there is a significant gap in support for late-stage R&D. 

We are up against global competition. Without a competitive skills base we cannot hope to support high productivity economic activity, something that is particularly vital during times of recession. The issue of investment in innovation and skills is so vast that businesses will choose other locations for high-value, late-stage R&D if the existing UK support doesn’t meet their requirements. So, what can the government do to avoid an innovation exodus that would see the UK miss out on game-changing inventions from startups and spinouts to SMEs and large enterprises?

Think long-term

The first step is to target support for late-stage R&D to enable companies to take bold risks here in the UK and deliver innovative solutions and products. Businesses should carry most of the risk, but the government must look to provide the infrastructure that supports the latter stages of innovation projects, otherwise disruptive innovators will go elsewhere to get their products over the line. 

Driving diversity

It’s vital that the UK invests in diverse people and STEM skills to drive innovation, including boosting careers activities and teacher recruitment while accelerating the expansion of inclusive and high-quality technical education and engineering apprenticeships. Without the necessary education platform in place, the engineers of today won’t be supplemented by the engineers of tomorrow, and we won’t have the innovators needed to tackle some of society’s most complex challenges.

Prioritise partnerships

The UK government has a key role to play in building partnerships through public innovation infrastructures. Government-initiated but industry-led activities and organisations, such as the Aerospace Technology Institute, support long-term strategic R&D, bringing together small and large businesses across supply chains and industry sectors. 

The government and industry leaders should therefore collaborate to co-design new industry-led programmes that accelerate R&D in internationally competitive sectors, to deliver innovation with a global impact which delivers a brighter, more sustainable, future.

Avoiding the exodus

The UK must act to sustain its reputation as an engineering powerhouse. We need to ensure that we have the infrastructure that supports innovation, right the way through to late-stage R&D. We need to ensure that the UK is the best place for innovations conceived, patented and developed in the UK and commercialised here too. 

Entries for the 2023 MacRobert Award close on 31 January, to enter see 

Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS is Chair of Judges for the 2023 MacRobert Award