The United Kingdom is on the verge of an innovation revolution; our labs and classrooms are bursting with exciting potential – but we need to do more than just will them to succeed, says Dr Clive Hickman, chief executive of the Manufacturing Technology Centre.
Our trailblazers need resources and support to bring their research to life. In the past, we’ve allowed great ideas that would benefit each and every one of us to slip through our fingers, simply because they haven’t been given the backing they need.
That’s why I’m excited that the government is placing innovation at the heart of its plans for growth, and looking to our best and brightest to find the technologies, skills and processes that are going to shape the world in years to come. This creates a clear path towards transforming the UK’s scientific strength not just into new technologies, but into real economic growth, jobs, and social value.
In last week’s Innovation Strategy, the government unveiled a roadmap for how it will deliver this. Among the announcements made was an increase in annual public investment in research and development to a record £22bn, an overhaul of government procurement for innovative products, and a commitment to consult on how policy and regulation can best set innovators up for success.
I’m glad to see the government make innovation its north star for recovery and growth. At the Manufacturing Technology Centre, we see innovation as essential. Essential for achieving strategic ambitions like net zero, but also as a vital catalyst for reclaiming the UK’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse. We believe that early-stage investment in tomorrow’s technologies, like robotics, advanced materials, and new methods of manufacturing, will help make the UK a world leader in manufacturing, matching its successes as a science superpower.
The strategy shows lots of promise, but to unlock its full potential, we need to ensure it’s applied in the right way.
Only by encouraging innovators and giving them room to test new ideas without fear of failure will we be able to generate truly innovative ideas which are able to change the world. We need to provide an environment that encourages people to take risks, test concepts, and pursue ideas which may not have clear applications at first, but may become indispensable in years to come. Take lithium batteries, for example – an invention first developed in the 1970s by a British innovator, M. Stanley Wittingham. This was a novel technology with unclear uses when it was first proposed, but has since been applied to power today’s smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles – with its benefits being reaped across the world.
The UK has never suffered from a shortage of great ideas
This is where the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), the new government body tasked with supporting transformational scientific research, will be of vital importance. By funding high-risk, high-reward ventures, ARIA will identify the innovations which have the potential to transform entire industries – and ensure they’re given the resources they need.
Alongside this, however, we have to ensure that the investment these initiatives deliver is driven towards research hubs across the country to support local economies and regional growth. If investment only focuses on the organisations and universities that are already the strongest – often as a result of greater funding over long periods of time – it’s unlikely to deliver the job growth and levelling-up benefits that regions like the West Midlands need. This would narrow the benefits – and make every pound of taxpayer investment less impactful.
This investment will be most effective if there are people ready to take advantage of it. That’s why the government’s focus on developing essential skills for the future is so important. It will help to develop the diverse, educated and talented workforce that we need to lock-in innovation, and ensure the long-term competitiveness of the UK, creating thousands of jobs and new opportunities along the way.
The UK has never suffered from a shortage of great ideas. For centuries, our scientists, researchers, and inventors have been shaping the world we live in today – and just look at what our brightest minds have achieved by working against the clock during the pandemic. As a nation, we now have an opportunity to bet on our strengths. With the right financial backing and infrastructure in place, imagine what can be achieved.
Dr Clive Hickman is chief executive of the Manufacturing Technology Centre