PM outlines conditions ‘where winners can emerge and grow’

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

Prime Minister Theresa May this morning told the CBI Annual Conference that the government will invest £2bn per year by 2020 into research and development.

She added that a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will help to translate research in ‘priority technologies’ – such as robotics and industrial biotech – into globally relevant and commercially viable products.

The government says it wants to reverse Britain’s relatively weak record in commercialising research and will now consult on how the fund can best support technologies that include artificial intelligence, medical technology, satellites, advanced materials, manufacturing and other areas where the UK has proven scientific strengths.

May told the Conference: “Our modern Industrial Strategy will be ambitious for business and ambitious for Britain.

“It is not about propping up failing industries or picking winners, but creating the conditions where winners can emerge and grow.

“It is about backing those winners all the way, to encourage them to invest in the long-term future of Britain. And about delivering jobs and economic growth to every community and corner of the country.”

Commenting on May’s announcement, Dr Sarah Main, CaSE director, said: “The Prime Minister’s commitment to make our strength in science and innovation the cornerstone of the UK’s future couldn’t be clearer. This commitment sends a strong signal of intent to the watching world, injecting much needed confidence and optimism.

“What is exciting is that there is a real coalition of support building across industry, government and charity partners to transform the UK’s R&D investment and output together. Where previous industrial strategies have floundered by failing to fully engage industry or provide necessary resource, it seems that this time industry and government are ready to work hand-in-hand. Here is an industrial strategy backed by industry and backed by government with a strategic fund to deliver its aims. In that spirit, it is essential that this investment is not just welcomed but well used.”

To realise the full economic potential of emerging technology opportunities, May also announced a review of the support for organisations undertaking research through the tax system, adding that the Treasury will look at whether support – in the form of corporate tax and R&D tax credits – can be made more effective. Further developments in the tax sphere will become apparent on Wednesday when the chancellor Philip Hammond delivers his first Autumn Statement to parliament.

In last year’s Autumn Statement the former chancellor George Osborne said he was ‘backing science’ with a pledge to protect the £4.7bn science budget in real terms up to 2020/21.

Appearing to be ‘on message’ in relation to technology R&D, the chancellor has pledged to underwrite underwrite Horizon 2020 projects beyond the UK’s EU membership. In August 2016, the Treasury said that whilst Britain remains part of the EU, organisations bidding directly to the European Commission for EU-funded projects will have their funding underwritten, even when projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. These include universities participating in Horizon 2020, and the EU’s research and innovation programme that is making nearly €80bn of funding available over seven-years to 2020.

Reaction round-up

Alan Richardson, CEO Cambridge Consultants: The £2bn a year annual fund for scientific research and development and innovation is to be welcomed but the devil is in the detail – and that detail remains to be seen. Much innovation and growth of higher-paid employment comes from smaller companies, for which it is important that any government support comes with a low bureaucratic burden. In contrast, the UK has already been running a very successful programme of R&D tax credits, which carries a relatively low bureaucratic burden. As a technology and product development company at the heart of the Cambridge technology cluster, we have doubled in size over the last four years creating more than 200 higher-paid jobs, aided by the R&D tax credits.

Karl Barnfather, chairman of intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers: “The PM’s promise to do more to tackle Britain’s ‘historic weakness in commercialisation’ is music to our ears. Anything that can be done to further incentivise R&D and encourage businesses to invest and grow their businesses here is good news for the economy.

“When it comes to mass production, British businesses have been lagging behind for too long and there is an opportunity to improve things by doing more to boost to the middle ground of commercialisation. Any changes that could come for Patent Box – the tax scheme designed to incentivise innovation – to promote it or make it easier for businesses to use, would help to position the country for growth.”

Prof. Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering: “The Academy has consistently championed the benefits of an industrial strategy for the UK, and a study that we led on behalf of the engineering profession, published in October, concluded that a renewed focus on industrial strategy is vital to enable us to continue to compete on the world stage after we leave the European Union. Engineering contributes at least 20 per cent of the UK’s gross value added and accounts for half our exports, so the prime minister’s announcements today are a very positive step towards making Britain one of the best places in the world to research, innovate and build a business.”

Prof. Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society: “Science and innovation are among the UK’s greatest strengths and are key to our future.  By placing them at the heart of our industrial strategy the prime minister is setting out a progressive vision for a country where the fruits of knowledge can spur economic growth and improve people’s lives. We look forward to seeing further details of the government’s plans.”

Prof. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge: “The University of Cambridge welcomes this investment, and the recognition of the importance of high-tech research to the UK economy. The joint oversight of this fund and of university core research funding by UKRI should enable a more collaborative approach to the translation of basic research to its application in industry. It is vital that the UK remains a world leader in science and innovation. This funding will enable us to build upon that strength so that the ideas and inventions developed in our universities will continue to create new business and growth across the UK.”

Dr Rob Buckingham, director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s RACE robotics centre: “As one of the UK’s leading robotics groups, specialising in challenging environments, we welcome the inclusion of robotics at this early stage in the development of the government’s emerging Industrial Strategy. It presents a great opportunity to bring the research and business communities together, to ensure the UK becomes a world leader in this field.”

Martin Walder, vice president of Industry at Schneider Electric: “While it’s encouraging to see steps being taken to ensure that British businesses are given every opportunity to be at the forefront of change, it is crucial that fresh investment and R&D is put to use in the right way. An Internet of Things-enabled industrial environment is vital for pushing the boundaries of technological innovation – from the application of augmented reality for plant maintenance, and the rollout of smart sensing technology, to predictive maintenance, Virtual Reality tools and processes, and the integration of robotics on the factory floor. If this investment is channeled in the right way we can expect to see greater improvements in efficiency and profitability, increased cybersecurity and innovation, and the better management of safety, performance and environmental impact.”

Whilst May appears to be supporting the innovators of tomorrow, The Royal Academy of Engineering is keen to celebrate the engineers of today and is looking for entrants to the 2017 MacRobert Award.

The UK’s longest running and most prestigious national prize for engineering innovation honours the winning organisation with a gold medal, and the team members a cash prize of £50,000.

Blatchford was awarded this year’s MacRobert Award for the development of the world’s most advanced commercially-available prosthetic lower leg.

Full details about the MacRobert Award can be found here.