Action man

Ian Pearson, the minister in charge of the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, has the job of turning research ideas into commercial success. Stuart Nathan reports

——It was probably inevitable that Ian Pearson, the son of an engineer-turned-polytechnic lecturer who left books on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics lying around the house, would become involved in engineering. He comes from Dudley, in the industrial heartland of the Black Country, where ‘you grow up with engine oil under your fingernails’.

Pearson thinks his father would have wanted him to become an engineer. In fact he was appointed minister for science and innovation in Gordon Brown’s first government, and is now learning the detail of his brief.

It will be an interesting journey for the affable Midlander. Pearson was previously minister for climate change. He is now at a new ministry that combines elements of the old departments of education and trade and industry. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) takes science from an industrial milieu to one focused more on education.

‘It’s a big opportunity, in that we’ve got skills, universities and innovation together in the same place,’ said Pearson. ‘I think there are opportunities for making sure that we both push out knowledge from our universities [into industry] and get businesses to work more closely with academics in industry in the first place.’

For Pearson, ‘innovation’ has a definite meaning: the commercial exploitation of new ideas. Whether the ideas come from university departments, commercial R&D laboratories, or from sharing practices between industrial sectors is immaterial, he said, and established models may not be useful across all industries.

‘The linear model of innovation —research lab or university research department; blue-skies research; commercialisation; then pull-through into a breakthrough discovery, which is a new technology for the future — works for some sectors, but it doesn’t work for all of them.

‘In pharmaceuticals the model works very well, and there’s a proven programme of clinical trials that leads to new drugs and medical devices. But in manufacturing, a lot of the innovation can be in applying existing technologies to a company for the first time. It can be in the way they organise their workforce, for example.’

Pearson’s views on innovation were shaped before he became a minister; he holds an MA in industrial relations and a PhD in industrial and business studies from Warwick University where, while a backbencher, he served as a visiting fellow at Warwick Manufacturing Group. ‘Warwick’s a terrific example of bridging the gap between science and engineering, with the way it works with a lot of big engineering companies,’ he said.

Pearson is keen to talk up the strengths of the UK’s science base. ‘I do think that we are known across the world for the strength of our academic research, and it’s hugely important for the economic success in the future. If you look across the sectors, we have an extraordinary breadth and depth of scientific and engineering knowledge.’

While acknowledging that UK scientists cannot be worldbeaters in everything, he suggests that improving our commercial exploitation of academic research could be one route to greater success: ‘Some universities are better at it than others, and some are very focused on it as an important part of their mission, but I think there’s more we can do.’

Among the mechanisms the government has set up for this is the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), a 12-strong panel mainly drawn from industry but also including academics. It was relaunched in July to direct UK science and technology strategy.

With the goal of ‘translation of knowledge into innovation and new and improved products and services’, the TSB helps fund the development of products such as drinkable vaccines, car bodies that biodegrade at the end of their lives, second-generation biofuels and pacemaker batteries charged by walking.

The TSB was first set up in 2003 but was revamped after Gordon Brown became prime minister. It has been detached from the DTI (now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, BERR) and is now an independent non-departmental public body, based in Swindon. When fully established it will employ 75 staff.

‘The TSB will be spending about £300m a year on establishing a number of technology platforms, focusing on collaborative research, that will hopefully lead to new products and processes,’ said Pearson.

Despite this new focus, he stressed that the government is not purely focused on near-market research. ‘We’re always going to fund a mixture of research. Some of it will be blue-sky, some of it will be strategic applied research, more near market.’

Picking the winners who will receive funding remains a problem, and Pearson is conscious of the pitfalls: overlooking potentially fruitful technological areas could lead to the loss of market-leading positions to other countries.

The wind energy sector is often cited as an example of this; a promising UK research base was starved of funding in the late 1980s, with the result that Denmark and Germany now dominate this sector.

‘What we do with our funding of research councils, as well as in government, is provide a strategic overview. We give our best assessment of where we want to see research, and we allow a grass-roots peer review process to determine what are the best ideas that need exploring,’ said Pearson.

He is keen not to repeat the mistakes made over wind. ‘I think we need to look at what we can do with wave and tidal technologies to try to make sure we’re much more successful at pull-through,’ he said.

‘We’re having a report done on wave and tidal and their potential; it’s being undertaken by the Sustainable Development Commission, and will be reporting this month or next.

‘One of the things they’re also looking at is the Severn Barrage (The Engineer, 19 June 2006) which would be a huge project. And through BERR we’re looking at how we can provide support through the Renewables Obligation, again making sure we have the policy framework right.’

New ways of funding research are at the forefront of Pearson’s thinking, and he believes the energy model could be fruitful.

The Energy Technologies Institute, another recently-established government/industry body that aims to identify and fund lab-based technologies that are about to enter their pre-competitive demonstration phase, has attracted a lot of interest from other governments, he said.

‘I’m excited by the possibilities that could come out of that, and it’s very interesting as a funding model,’ he said. ‘You could maybe think about other areas outside energy where we could have similar partnership models, and I’m keen to explore that, working with the TSB. Potentially you could look at some areas of biotechnology, which you could think of in terms of near-market collaborative research, and some of the nano-engineering projects as well.’

Pearson believes collaboration is key to success in science and innovation. ‘There’s an American expression, “putting some skin in the game”, and by skin I mean skills, knowledge, innovation and networks,’ he said. ‘Getting the skills agenda right is so important; getting the knowledge and innovation agenda right means that we’ll have the right balance between science funding and pull-through into the business base; getting more of our discoveries and innovations exploited in the UK has to be important to us.

‘And being a networked country in the global economy is vital — as well as being good on science and technology, our future will rely on building strong partnerships with China and India and other emerging economies, so we have two-way exploitation of new ideas.’