Innovators need support package

Knowledge transfer is key to improving the success rate of British research projects, says Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya.

In recent decades manufacturing has hardly been at the forefront of the UK’s agenda. Successive governments have relied on the financial and service sectors. That is the easy option. In engineering you have to sweat. You have to look long term: design a product, ensure it offers reliability and market it at a price the world is prepared to pay.

The UK has core competence in engineering and is home to quality universities, but has never fully utilised these attributes, partly because governments have never offered sufficient support.

I speak from personal experience. When I served as a young apprentice at Lucas Industries, the Birmingham company was a world leader. Yet a lack of investment in innovation meant Lucas was very quickly overtaken by emerging companies from Germany and Japan. They are now global giants. Lucas no longer exists.

Let me give you two more examples. Sir James Black’s work on Beta blockers made a major contribution to both our physical and economic health. Why? Because we had both a strong pharmaceutical industry and — in the NHS — a ready market for these products. Yet the equally innovative work of George Gray and Cyril Hilsum, the pioneers of liquid crystal displays, found a market not in Britain but in Asian companies.

I have long believed that science and technology are central to almost every issue we face as a nation. But the dominant attitude in the UK appears to be that science and technology can somehow be reserved for a caste of qualified researchers, whose ideas emerge as bolts from the blue for the rest of society. This isolates hard science from economics, and scientific research from the real world. The result of this is two castes — those who do science and those who have science done to them.

The government has established the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and increased higher education funding. But that is not enough. We should double, treble, even quadruple funds to applied-science projects such as technology demonstrators and low-carbon research.

The TSB has a budget of £1bn for the next three years for all applied research. To make a real contribution, we should be investing at least £1bn a year.

Despite some progress, the sharing of innovation and success between academia and industry is too often the exception, when it needs to be the rule. We must embrace a new attitude — one of constant engagement between science and society. We must encourage scientists to focus on our shared challenges and translate their research into reality. At the same time, we must give these independent researchers the freedom to innovate, challenge and experiment.

Ask a dozen scientists to reduce carbon emissions and you will get a dozen research proposals. Perhaps half of them will work. The trouble is, you don’t know which half.

The same is true of spin-off companies. Not all innovators will succeed. There can be no guarantee of success. Risk is at the core of innovative research. Innovation always involves venturing into the unknown, so Britain has to develop an attitude of embracing risk.

We should offer an ‘innovation lottery’ so it is easier for companies to get funding for small-scale research with academic partners. We need a culture change so that knowledge transfer is central to academic life. We must bring manufacturers, researchers and customers together so they can share ideas to improve products. We should remove the hurdles, the bureaucracy and the form-filling that can blight new research projects.

We must not let research breakthroughs from British universities be transferred from the lab to the wider world by others. We must help innovative companies and researchers to develop scientific and economic goals together, and back their efforts to take their successes to market. We must bring science and society together. And government can play a major part in making that happen.

Sidebar

Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya – Director, Warwick Manufacturing Group

Early life

1940 Born in Dhaka (then part of India)

1960 Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

1964 MSc and PhD from Birmingham University

Career

1980 Became Professor of Manufacturing Systems at the University of Warwick and founded Warwick Manufacturing Group. Has advised both Conservative and Labour governments

2004 Made a life peer. Sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords