It created (and continues to create) new industries, jobs and opportunities that had simply been inconceivable before. And none of this would have been possible without a robust and well supported education system. Take innovations that ended World War II. At the heart of the UK’s efforts to crack enigma was a team made up of the brightest minds from our greatest universities. The breakthroughs at Bletchley Park paved the way for the modern day computer. Today this remains the same and modern industry is indebted to a healthy healthy, diverse and well-funded science R&D capability.
Scientific research has long been the underlying force behind British innovations and drives the creation of new technologies and platforms that help established businesses to innovate and create. UK-born tech leaders such as DeepMind, Cambridge Quantum Computing and ARM owe much to the UK’s well-resourced research institutions and universities.
However this status quo is at risk, with the UK’s global competitiveness, productivity and high-value jobs at stake.
Whilst public spending on science has been protected since 2010 and will continue to be ring-fenced until 2021, the UK has started to fall behind its competitors in total R&D investment. Yes, new facilities are being built, but these lack funding needed to make them fully operational. And the UK is without a clear “roadmap” to bring public and private sector science investment in line with the EU target of three per cent.
Timing could not be more critical. We now find ourselves on the cusp of not one but several technological revolutions, all facilitated through public investment in science research.
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The amount of investment in research and the strategic approach in which it is spent in over the next five to ten years will be crucial to determine the UK’s status as a global technology powerhouse that can continue to hold its own in international export markets.
The first wave of Science and Innovation Audits for Local Enterprise Partnerships, announced as part of chancellor George Osborne’s Budget, is a significant measure to ensure that cutting edge R&D is supported throughout the UK. From Edinburgh to Manchester and South West England to the Lothians, these audits will provide the mapping of regional strengths and help identify global competitive advantages. Regional initiatives such as this are essential in ensuring that the benefits of investment in scientific research are felt nationwide, leaving no stone unturned in a quest to find innovation and support it.
Emerging technologies with the power to disrupt include artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and quantum computing, areas where the UK has established itself as a global leader, with a clear competitive advantage over the likes of Silicon Valley.
Take the UK’s contribution to virtual reality, a specialism already re-defining the fundamentals in industries ranging from healthcare and advanced manufacturing to computer gaming and cyber security. This has largely been born from government investment in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
A big part of winning at the exports game is harnessing the power of intellectual property. It is no secret that IP is a vital part of the UK economy. Hi-tech companies live and die by the strength of their intellectual property, upon which new products and platforms depend.
To date the UK has outperformed all but the US in spinning out cutting-edge research into winning business models, as found by the recent “Infinite Possibilities” report, the US Chamber of Commerce’s International IP Index. Yet we can do better. The answer lies in a frequent and well-placed investment in research institutions which will help bridge the gap between industry and education.
The UK has a long-standing tradition in scientific discovery, while our technological excellence has powered the economy and changed the world for the better. It is vital for the sake of economic prosperity that we continue to adequately equip our research institutions as a means to spur innovation, inspire creativity and maintain a competitive edge.
Graeme Malcolm is co-founder and CEO of M Squared Lasers, one of the UK’s leading fast-growth technology firms.
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