Foresight with hindsight

The second round of the UK Foresight programme takes off next month, aimed at helping to shape a vision for technological research shared by business, academia and government. Since its launch in the mid-1990s, the Government and industry-backed Foresight programme has drawn strong comment, both positive and negative. The original programme brought together panels of […]

The second round of the UK Foresight programme takes off next month, aimed at helping to shape a vision for technological research shared by business, academia and government.

Since its launch in the mid-1990s, the Government and industry-backed Foresight programme has drawn strong comment, both positive and negative. The original programme brought together panels of academics and industrialists from 16 industrial sectors to identify research and development priorities. Now it plans a fresh approach to attract wider participation and help build UK competitiveness.

On the plus side, Foresight is seen as helping to create new technology strategies and break down barriers between business and academics, as well as informing government policy. But critics accuse it of dictating research objectives, while moving academics away from pure curiosity-driven or blue-sky research.

Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Robert May, who chairs the Foresight Steering Group, says: ‘This time round, we’re trying to learn from the things we did well and the things we didn’t. The aim is to produce another set of panel reports by November 2000.’

May feels there was a need for more broadly defined sectoral panels this time round, and that manufacturing needed more prominence. ‘Though there were some clearly defined sectors like food, drink and chemicals, manufacturing tended to cut across several panels or be submerged in individual ones,’ he says. This time, Manufacturing 2020 is the subject of a separate ‘thematic’ panel, which will feed into and draw on the work of the sectoral panels.

The Foresight findings feed into the research councils’ priorities, and a number of collaborative research programmes have been set up, but May believes Foresight’s key role is to encourage cross-sector net-working: ‘We need to create mutual awareness of opportunities for new ideas to solve today’s problems. I see the process of thinking about it as more important than any single outcome.’

He dismisses simplistic measures of performance, such as the proportion of worldwide R&D accounted for by the UK: ‘This 5% research spend figure is a mantra which is persistently encountered, but does not represent the full picture.’

Though this figure remains broadly unchanged, May estimates that the UK produces about 9% of the scientific papers published worldwide, and 10% of the citations, while the number of patents registered by universities has doubled since the advent of Foresight.

‘There have also been a significant number of start-ups which are also cashing in on Foresight research, new connections and UK cleverness,’ May says.

Critics of the programme claim the Government is interfering. They say the research would have been carried out anyway, and that universities would be better spending money on curiosity-driven research.

Dr Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, says: ‘We question the value of the Foresight publications because, by the time they publish, the findings are often out of date.’

He believes the Government should fund curiosity-driven, blue-sky research because it is good science, and the people doing it are good scientists, irrespective of potential use of the science.

Cotgreave recognises the value of networking, but says networks ‘must become larger, involving as many scientists, industrialists and smaller companies as possible, rather than simply the great and the good’.

Professor Gordon Edge, executive chairman of science and technology consultancy at the Generics Group, says: ‘The problem with Foresight historically is that the focus on technology has meant people round the table are often already the converted. We need to involve industrial investors, chief executives and other board-level decision makers. One of the reasons there is not enough investment in R&D in the UK is that most boards are not populated by people who are orientated towards investing in technological risk.’

Edge welcomes the move to a more thematic approach, but suggests: ‘There should be more emphasis on areas such as e-commerce, which could be communicated to people who have so far been resistant to listening to technological messages.’

Foresight programme director Stephen Spivey is aware of the criticisms. ‘The blueprint for the next round will make the programme more effective. The previous 16 sectoral panels were relatively narrowly defined. This tended to limit the audience and the added value of the work and reports which came out of the panels.’

Government departments tend to be more sympathetic to quality of life issues than to wealth creation. ‘So moving away from a sectoral focus should provide a platform for addressing issues more relevantly and meaningfully for policy makers in Whitehall, as well as attracting a wider business audience,’ says Spivey.

He admits that engineering was underplayed in the first round: ‘The Manufacturing and Business Processes Panel never quite found its niche.’

Spivey wants to bring more top decision-makers round the table. ‘We’ve had an extraordinarily diverse collection of people voluntarily giving their time and enthusiasm to working on the Foresight panels, but by and large they came from a relatively narrow technical or research and development spectrum.’

This has begun to change, with people like Nick Scheele, former Jaguar chairman and now senior vice-president of Ford, Europe, chairing the manufacturing panel. ‘The new list of chairmen will show that we’ve got lots more people like that on board,’ says Spivey.

So what does he consider the main benefits of the Foresight programme?

‘Foresight is about promoting culture change in terms of strategic planning and getting business, scientists and academia closer together,’ he says. ‘Essentially, I consider that the Foresight programmes are more about communicating what science and technology can do for you, than identifying long-term, blue-sky research opportunities.’

Industry and academia set the priorities

Foresight was launched in 1994 after the White Paper ‘Realising Our Potential’ claimed Britain did not spend enough on R&D.

It started with an attitude survey, followed by 16 academic/industry panels covering different industry sectors. Each panel, plus the steering group, produced reports identifying priorities for technological research.

These priorities underpin a range of collaborative research programmes involving academia and industry, including the £90m Foresight Challenge, the £200m Link programme, and the Smart awards, which provide opportunities for small companies to develop research (see case studies, right).

This time Foresight will have 10 sectoral panels, three thematic panels and a knowledge pool on the world wide web.