Industrial Strategy: The Role for Science & Innovation

How can scientific breakthroughs be turned into commercial products? How can data be used effectively? What can social sciences bring to our innovation and growth? How can the new Industrial Strategy support these efforts?

These were among the questions discussed by Parliamentarians, leading research and business sector experts, and the general public at a recent event hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST). Held just days after the launch of the Government green paper, ‘Building Our Industrial Strategy’, it was a unique opportunity to share ideas, experience, and first impressions on how the UK can harness its scientific capacity to benefit both society and the economy.

The New Industrial Strategy

The prominent role of science and innovation in the Industrial Strategy was widely welcomed by all attendants, beginning with POST’s chair Adam Afriyie MP: the UK’s strength in this area was cited as a solid foundation to build upon, and one that the current Government has pledged to support.

“At the Autumn Statement in 2016, we promised an additional £4.7 billion for science and innovation between now and 2020… By some calculations, this is the single biggest increase in spending on R&D since 1979,” said Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, in his opening address. “The Industrial Strategy will be about an economy that works for everyone, ensuring that growth and jobs and opportunities are more widely spread and available.”

Panel members, including President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Prof. Dame Ann Dowling, stressed the key challenge that “commercialising” ideas around research represented to the strategy’s success. Getting this right could maximise benefits for the UK at large, helping to deliver a productive, prosperous future. This is the idea behind the creation of UK Research and Innovation, intended to unite research councils and Innovate UK in one body: Sir John Kingman, UKRI’s current non-executive chair was on the panel to explain their role in the strategy.

Long Term Investment: An Economy for Everyone?

To stimulate the development of priority technologies, an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund was announced as part of the £4.7bn investment increase. While a welcome move, the panel raised important questions around best uses for it: should funding be spread out, or focused on priority areas? Will it target recipients by technology, geography, or a mix of both? Are investments going to focus on optimising rates of return, or delivering as much growth as possible? And how should funding be split between basic or high risk sciences, and commercially applicable investment?

The potential for science to benefit areas such as health, environment, education, and the wider economy was recognised. But how might the strategy ensure an economy that works for everybody? The panel acknowledged public concerns around the rapid pace of change in our society: agreeing upon the importance of addressing gaps in productivity and wealth between different regions of the UK, questions were raised over the extent to which the strategy can prioritise equal regional development while supporting key technologies.

Diversity & Young Innovators: the Ongoing Challenge

Opening with a celebration of the presence of two female engineers on the panel, Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation, emphasised the importance and on-going challenge of diversity across sciences, something she felt the strategy did not currently address. Agreeing upon the importance of diversity, ensuing panel discussions focused on attracting a range of people to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The audience raised questions about retaining youth interest: why had “existing efforts to attract young people to STEM schemes” failed? Speakers agreed a key focus of the strategy should be on investing in teaching: noting that children start making decisions about their careers at a young age, the panel emphasised the role that careers advice and STEM-qualified teachers would play in inspiring young people to enter scientific careers, whether in academia, industry, or the public sector.

Science, Creativity and the Vitality of Statistics

An audience member proposed that there are cultural barriers that turn young people off STEM careers, such as a fear of being seen as ‘too clever’. People think of science and creativity as polar opposites, but many major scientific discoveries require huge amounts of creativity! The panel urged people to help society break through these barriers, and make it clear that science is exciting and creative. Scientific role models, like Tim Peake, play a big part in achieving this.

Key emphasis was placed on the dependence of many aspects of modern living upon data analysis, and a member of the Royal Statistical Society queried its role in the planned strategy. According to speaker Tom Thackray, Director for Innovation at the Confederation of British Industry, access to data and people with data analysis skills will be critical, as the panel widely agreed.

Forging Ahead

The space between disciplines and sectors is an exciting area where interesting innovations and discoveries are often made. Supporting cross-sectoral and interdisciplinary work going forward will be important in maintaining the scientific excellence for which the UK is renowned, as panellist Dr Patrick Vallance, President of R&D at GlaxoSmithKline noted. A fluid workforce with a varied and cross-cutting set of skills, and integrated public and industrial interests can enable effective commercialisation of ground-breaking scientific discoveries in the UK.

The reception closed on the note that the Industrial Strategy could underpin future progress in science and innovation. While many questions remain about how to realise the strategy, Jo Johnson MP sees it as an opportunity to create “a golden era for British science.”