A Government push for the Foresight programme owes much to the drive of Department of Trade and Industry science, industry and energy minister John Battle.
The Government’s review of Foresight the joint initiative between industry and academia to identify research priorities was launched last week. A cross-departmental ministerial committee was set up to give fresh impetus and pursue the ideas across all departments.
The announcement came fromtrade and industry secretary Margaret Beckett, who has pledged to take a personal interest in science and technology policy and help revitalise UK research and development.
But it is Battle, MP for Leeds West since 1987, who is charged with making the new initiative work. The science, engineering and technology brief falls within his area of responsibility. It is a challenge he has relished for some time.
‘Two years ago when I covered the science, engineering and technology brief I was very critical of Foresight and wanted to know how it would be progressed. I wanted to be assured that it wouldn’t just be a set of reports that are left on my shelf
‘When I came into this room [at the DTI] I set them out on the table and I read them all again. I wanted to know: has each area been cross-referenced with the others? Are we building the synergies?
‘There was plenty of work to do in just networking what was there already. So we said we’d bring Foresight right to the heart of our policy on competitiveness and put it not only at the centre of what this department’s doing, but throughout Government as well, with a focus on ensuring that the partnerships are put together with business to deliver the objectives.’
Beckett has found an extra £15m for Foresight, even within the current spending constraints, and Battle will continue to meet the chairs of the Foresight panels regularly and push this cross-fertilisation idea.
Battle’s passion for his subject is evident. His father, now retired, was an electrical engineer. The 46-year-old MP describes Leeds as a microcosm of the UK: between 1977 and 1987 manufacturing declined as a proportion of the economy of both the city of Leeds and the country as a whole from 58% to 32%.
His sentences flow in rapid succession. Theoretical policy ideas are followed by practical illustrations from firms he has visited recently that exemplify best practice.
‘If anything Foresight has caught on rather better in academic circles than in the business world, so I’m keen to get the message out into the business sector. I think it will chime in with people who are hungry for ideas about concurrent engineering, time compression management it’s not just a question of making products but the processes of how we make them, and that includes new technology. Laying out a factory in CAD/CAM in three dimensions I think these ideas are not massively disseminated through industry.
‘What I’m looking for is not a sudden explosion, if you like, of ideas: I think developments happen with a series of step changes, move up to the nest plateau and keep moving up. Foresight will help us move up to the next plateau, into the next century.’
Next week Battle leads the Industrialist’s Summit debate on the first day of the Manufacturing Week ’97 exhibition, on innovation, research and development, and competitiveness. He has a simple message: ‘We’ve got to get across that investment in R&D is not an optional extra it’s the key to long-term survival and success. And that means companies have got to benchmark themselves against the competition.
‘I’m not convinced that in Britain we haven’t got real world class potential. We’ve got to look at how we make the best use of what we’ve got, new ideas within academia, within industry and with a combination of the two. The challenge is how to put these together in a way that companies can actually develop in practice.’
He cites the Teaching Company Scheme, where university students are assigned to industry projects, as another way in which industry and academia can be brought together. He wants to challenge ‘the whole notion that our society is good at ideas but incapable of turning them into business practice and into generating wealth and improvements in the quality of life. We’re not incapable of doing that, but we’ve got to improve on it all the time’.
The idea that investment in R&D is the key to survival is fairly straightforward: why does industry seem to be unable to grasp it? Why is the UK always lagging behind competitor nations in the R&D Scoreboard that Battle’s department produces?
‘There are all kinds of pressures. Just as in politics we try very hard to break out of the short-term and get into the medium-term and long-term agenda, I find that incredibly difficult you tend to worry about the next news bulletin and not the long-term policy initiatives you should be taking.
‘It’s equally hard in industry and commerce to get beyond the short-term shareholder interest and it’s hard within the finance sector and the investment sector to get beyond the immediate return. The dynamic of the whole economic culture tends to militate against medium and long-term investment. We’re looking for a massive cultural shift.
‘I would be desperate if no-one was thinking long-term, but it’s not true. The best companies are there and doing it. If they can do it others can do it. But are they asking the right questions about management and processes as well as products, and challenging their boards and shareholders to ask those questions as well? That’s where benchmarking comes in.
‘It’s not as bad as people sometimes assume. It can be much better, but we’re not starting from nowhere. What frightens me most is complacency acting as a drag on the whole system.’
Recent reports that independent research organisations were threatened by a proposed change in taxation rules, which would remove their exemption from corporation tax and cut £50m of R&D funding, hardly squares with this message.
Battle is keen to quash those fears. ‘That’s not actually true.’ All that is happening is a review, set up by the previous Government, to make sure the right organisations were applying for exemption. ‘That’s only fair and proper. There’s no suggestion that those organisations will be hit by penal taxes on R&D. The review has yet to report to me. I think some of the criticism is not only massively premature but wrong.’
Earlier this year Battle spoke of his enthusiasm for manufacturing and his dismay at its negative image among the public, and school leavers. He says: ‘As a politician it’s my job to change that.’
Why does he think the image persists and what can he do to alter perceptions? ‘The image persists because we’re not sufficiently forward-looking. We’re a backward-looking society.’ Images of manufacturing in school textbooks depict ‘forges from the last century, not this century or even the next. Although we’re in the information age we haven’t quite got out of the image of the industrial revolution’.
Unlike previous generations, children are no longer encouraged to develop practical skills, he says. What is needed, he argues, is ‘renewing a whole experience of manufacturing and seeing that it’s vital to the economy.
‘If the banner above this department is competitiveness and companies are competitive in a global market through innovation, creativity and R&D, then manufacturing is an area of innovation, creativity and design. It’s an area for sparky brains.
‘The whole of manufacturing now is driven by IT, by telecommunications and computing skills, and mathematical modelling. It’s very much 21st century, new ideas, supported by the other areas of science and innovation. It’s a career for creative people.’