The real question at the heart of the growth debate is this: if we’re going to trade our way out of our debt-fuelled model of boom and bust, what exactly are we going to sell to make the recovery sustainable?
While challenging, this question doesn’t need to be depressing. Britain’s public finances may be tight, but this country is still bursting with talent, energy, ambition, and creativity. Leadership in government is about inspiring people to see opportunities in challenges, and I believe that there are lots of reasons to be optimistic about our ability to develop a more sustainable model of growth that can support our recovery.
After a 15-year career in biomedical venture capital, I am optimistic. And when it comes to seeing the business potential of UK science, I’m a confirmed rational optimist.
So what are life sciences, why do I believe life sciences are the answer to our problems? Put simply: life sciences are the application of our understanding of the biochemical systems underpinning plants, animal and human life to help solve the challenges of human society, principally in medicine, agriculture and energy. It’s the umbrella term for the science we’ll need to tackle global development and the challenges of food and energy shortages, rising population, and disease.
As the government chief scientist’s recent Foresight Report set out, our rapidly rising population creates a global grand challenge: we need to double worldwide food production using half the energy, land and water inputs. And this is but one part of the wider challenge of worldwide development. We also need to help emerging nations create a new version of “accelerated sustainability”, which will allow them to move, like China, from subsistence to a sophisticated economy in a matter of decades.
This challenge provides a huge export opportunity for the UK. The speed of global development is opening up massive new markets for technology and support services in agriculture and food, energy and medicine.
This is an opportunity for us because Britain already has all the ingredients to be a pioneer of the new technologies and services needed to support this sustainable development.
We have world class strength in science and technology, a proven track record of entrepreneurialism, and are a global centre of investment capital.
There are so many exciting new technologies out there: from the use of algae as a renewable source of transportation fuel, to GM crops and graphene, the “new silicon”.
So as we look at ways to rebalance our economy away from over-reliance on debt-fuelled consumerism and a City boom in derivatives, these exploding global markets provide huge export potential for us.
Imagine, for example, a ten-year collaboration between the UK and India in the field of agricultural research. Britain has led the world in plant science for 200 years (until we stopped investing in the 1980s), and in the John Innes Centre, Institute of Food Research, and the Universities of Cambridge, Reading, Liverpool and Aberystwyth, we still have the foundations of a world class research base.
We have world class agriculture, food processing and retailing sectors, and we also have strong political and cultural ties with India. A collaboration in which we undertook to support the training, research and innovation required for the modernization of Indian agriculture could open up huge new sources of revenue and export growth for UK plc.
Last week, I helped organise an event for angel investors designed to see the technologies and business opportunities emerging from the Norwich Research Park in my region. The NRP is a world-leading centre for research in food, diet and health, and plant science, with the wider environmental expertise in earth and life systems.
The focus for the day was to look over the next ten years at how to create new jobs by maximising the commercial potential of this intellectual property and attracting inward investment.
To unlock an economic recovery that is sustainable in every sense, we need to apply an entrepreneur’s logic across the board of UK plc and exploit every opportunity to unlock new global export markets.
Unlike our first Industrial Revolution, we won’t be selling cotton and ships but our science, innovation, and experience of high density living. That’s why we need to get investors on campus to look at our science and high tech innovation as potential exports. We need to encourage the “appliance of science”.
Rapid development and population growth in the emerging global economies is driving huge new markets. What are we waiting for?
George Freeman is a Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk and adviser on life sciences to the Minister of State for Universities and Science. He previously had a 15-year career in biomedical venture capital, spending most of his career in and around the Cambridge cluster, supporting high tech growth businesses.
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