Is R&D turning into a political hot potato? That may be putting it a little strongly — R&D is unlikely to knock crime or pensions off the front pages just yet — but there are at least signs that some gentle baking is underway.
Evidence of this can be drawn from comments made by two political heavyweights over the past couple of weeks.
First, shadow chancellor George Osborne called for more to be done to nurture hi-tech start-up companies, and in particular the creation of a business climate that supports entrepreneurship and innovation.
Last week science minister Lord Sainsbury set out his vision of a more innovation-friendly government, including stronger support for applied research that is closely allied to the needs of business.
The fact that such a debate is underway is welcome. It is impossible to overstate the importance of technological innovation to the
The Engineer was pleased to turn up the heat a little more in this regard with its first
, held at
on the theme of commercialising innovation.
A fascinating day's discussion brought together those heading research in some of the
's biggest companies such as Rolls-Royce and Vodafone; innovative SMEs; leading universities including Imperial and
; and members of the legal and financial communities.
made two things clearer than ever. Firstly, that the
's technologists are the equal or better of those anywhere on the planet. From the world-class engine technology of Rolls-Royce, through firms of just a few dozen people exporting their innovations around the world, to groundbreaking research in university departments, the ingredients for success are all there.
Combining those ingredients is less straightforward, however. The legal, financial, regulatory and policy issues surrounding the creation of successful businesses from advanced technologies are complex and frequently problematic. How can small technology firms and large corporations work together to their mutual benefit? How would the pull-through of applied research from university to industry desired by Lord Sainsbury work in practice?
Happily, The Engineer Summit was able to offer some pointers. One example is the relationship between Rolls-Royce and its growing network of University Technology Centres, many in the
but some overseas, which has seen the company work with academic centres of excellence to carry out much of its most vital research work.
The UTCs now comprise a huge, extended R&D department for Rolls-Royce, which establishes strong, long-standing relationships with the universities in return for access to world-class expertise. The arrangement benefits both parties.
Learning from the best and applying those lessons elsewhere is — as both George Osborne and Lord Sainsbury would agree — a matter of urgency. Whether through events such as The Engineer Summit or a growing presence on the political agenda, the volume of debate on these issues is about to increase.