Shake-up too important to fail

‘That’s that. The end.’ Tony Blair’s last words as Prime Minister had the ring of the end of a fairytale (or horror story, depending on your point of view).

‘That’s that. The end.’ Tony Blair’s last words as Prime Minister had the ring of the end of a fairytale (or horror story, depending on your point of view) but the question on the lips of the rest of us was, ‘What’s next?’

In the case of the Department of Trade and Industry, the answer was ‘That’s that. The end’.

So passes the DTI, which before its formation in 1970 had a history as The Board of Trade stretching back to the 1600s, and which was abolished by Gordon Brown on his first day as PM.

In truth, not too many will mourn its passing. Over the last few years the DTI has taken on something of a moribund air. As we have noted before in The Engineer, a government department that combines responsibility for leading-edge technological innovation with clamping down on loan sharks and dubious Christmas hamper schemes seems a little unfocused, to say the least.

In its place Brown has unveiled the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

On the face of it, let trumpets sound and joy be unconfined. Innovation has its own department, handily combined with the universities that produce and nurture the innovators and the skills needed to sustain an innovative economy.

The new PM has often spoken about the need to develop a ‘knowledge economy’ and in the new department, he seems to be putting his (or more precisely our) money where his mouth is.

In reality, the jury will be out until we see the real effect of Brown’s revamp on the innovation culture of the UK. Here are a couple of early observations.

Having a department for innovation is all very well, but will innovation – and particularly innovation in engineering and technology – attract the type of practical backing it needs under a Brown government?

For example, the government in its various guises is one of the biggest customers for technical innovation. It can show its support by giving small, innovative technology firms a fair and clearly defined route that allows them to show Whitehall what they can do, potentially giving them access to this huge market.

Another striking thing about the new departmental set-up is the distinction between universities, as part of DIUS, and the Schools, Children and Families remit of the old Education Department.

It makes sense to position universities as a key component of the innovation economy. Indeed, arguably they are its most important component. But they are also part of the wider education system and it would be damaging if pre-higher education became disengaged from the university sector, which relies on the former to supply its talented applicants.

Hopefully this will not happen. For the moment, anyone with the best interests of UK innovation at heart should wish the new set-up every success. Failure would bring a political cost for Gordon Brown, but a far, far higher cost for the rest of us.

Andrew Lee, editor