Don’t close the gates on innovation

It is always interesting to find out what others think about us, so here is a snapshot of attitudes to the UK among students at a Beijing university.

‘The graduate students gathered in a trendy café next to Tsinghua University had a very clear picture of the UK. The place that gave birth to Newton and Darwin, Rutherford and Tim Berners Lee, was best known for Premiership football, castles, fog, island isolationism and Mr Bean.’

Views from abroad

This emerged from questioning of Chinese, Indian and Korean students carried out by policy think-tank Demos for a report called The Atlas of Ideas, which looks at the explosion of technical and scientific innovation in Asia and how the UK should respond.

Demos presents the usual array of mind-boggling statistics. Chinese spending on R&D is increasing by 20 per cent a year. India will be producing 1.4 million newly qualified engineers every year by 2015. A quarter of a million South Koreans will be working in R&D by the end of next year.

So far so familiar. But the report is interesting in that it challenges the idea that, faced with the Asian technology tiger, the best thing the foggy old UK castle can do is pull up the drawbridge and prepare for a siege.

Demos calls this siege mentality techno-nationalism. It involves an obsession with national independence in high-profile, prestige technology areas such as aerospace and defence. These industries then fight with overseas rivals to defend their position.

A significant body of respected opinion holds this is exactly what the UK should do. The argument goes like this; having seen a large chunk of our manufacturing drain eastwards, it is imperative to hold on to the innovative engineering, technology and science and high-value elements such as design and testing.

The report takes a slightly different tack, arguing that the UK’s ultimate salvation will come not just through competing but from collaborating to an equal degree. That means setting up UK-based networks and partnerships in key technological areas that will become the preferred vehicles for the world’s technical innovators.

Magnet for the best

If that means rejecting a ‘go it alone’ approach and instead merging a UK research initiative with others in Europe, the US and Asia then, argues Demos, so be it.

The key, according to the report’s authors, is to become a magnet for the world’s best people. Instead of worrying about the high proportion of overseas students, researchers and technology specialists in the UK compared with the home-grown variety, we should welcome it. If people want to come here to study and work, it means the UK is on the world innovation map. It is when nobody wants to come here we should be concerned.

Demos’ role model for the future of research and innovation is an unlikely one — the City of London. It argues that the City is successful precisely because it is international. Most of its major financial institutions are foreign-owned. Money flows in and out of London from anywhere and everywhere. The world’s financial elite see it as a gap on their CV if they haven’t spent time working in the UK’s capital.

That, according to Demos, is what our technical innovation base should strive for.

Agree or disagree with its conclusions, but the debate is too important to ignore.

Andrew Lee