Sharing ideas in science, technology and innovation

Industrial Strategy – What should it mean for the West Midlands?

by Andrew Sleigh, Chair BSC Chief Technology Officers Group

This is a somewhat expanded version of the introduction I gave at the Birmingham Science City CTO Group breakfast meeting on 13th September. The aim is to provide some initial ideas to stimulate discussion about what an Industrial Strategy should mean for the West Midlands.

One of Theresa May’s more interesting recent announcements was the need for an Industrial Strategy. So far, there has only been limited discussion by government or the media about what this might mean. The first meeting of “Cabinet Committee on Economy and Industrial Strategy”, chaired by the PM, indicates the objectives as being:

  • Part of the aspiration to “deliver an economy that works for all”
  • As “arresting a decades-long decline in Britain’s manufacturing sector by helping firms tackle the challenges posed by globalisation without blunting the market forces that make them competitive”,
  • And “playing to the country’s strengths while also creating an economy that is open to new industries, particularly those that will shape our lives in the future”.

So what might this actually entail, what should it mean for the West Midlands (a region with diverse, globally competitive manufacturing strengths), and what can we do to steer it in the most effective direction?

To prise open this argument, I highlight four items that have been published over the summer:

  • An article in the FT by Professor Marianna Muzzacato “A strong industrial strategy has many benefits”.
  • The EEF article “What Next for Britain and the EU” and their campaign concerning Industrial Strategy.
  • NESTA “Back to the future: Industrial Strategy in 2016”
  • The draft Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP “Strategic Economic Plan 2016-2030”


Professor Muzzacato’s article makes the case for the state to engage in new types of public-private partnerships, to work together to solve problems across sectors with public agencies. She argues against the 1970’s approach of reviving zombie companies, or incumbent companies winning unwarranted favours with government, or the state trying to drive growth, but by mission oriented investments in partnership with the private sector. She argues these are more effective than instruments such as tax credits and subsidies. As in her book, her thesis is governments should act in an entrepreneurial way in partnership with the private sector, providing the demand-led investment and impetus for cross-disciplinary innovation (she used the iPhone as an example).


The EEF, “The Manufacturers Organisation”, as expected has a wide range of material on its website relevant to an industrial strategy, but so far does not have specific policy recommendations. It sets out generic principles, much directed at future trading relationships post Brexit, and has a campaign page specifically dedicated to industrial strategy.  These highlight easy access to international markets, skills development and reducing the costs of doing business, but the EEF recommends ‘grandfathering’ the most current EU legislation and regulation into any future UK scheme.

One of the more interesting aspects exposed is the importance of embracing 4IR, the 4th Industrial Revolution, essentially the deep integration of digital and cyber technologies into all aspects of manufactured products. Indeed, what we mean by manufacturing is broadening with service-based contractual arrangements, 3D printing and products providing platforms for an eco-system of Apps offering additional features.

What is clear is that the EEF has an important place in this debate, and we should track and contribute to its thinking.

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NESTA has a wide range of relevant material, including papers on the importance of innovation in promoting growth, the collaborative economy, and has recently added a page on Industrial Strategy. This echoes the government statements, but adds the importance of a sophisticated understanding of the strengths and future direction of the UK economy, seeking the creation of a ‘strategic brain’ at the heart of government, the need to take a long term view of how we replace declining sectors with new opportunities and the skills that go with them, and also the opportunity to excite the public about innovation, with an honest discussion about the risks and drawbacks as well as benefits. NESTA will be looking at the big questions around Industrial Strategy, and this must be an important activity to watch.


Closer to home the GBSLEP Strategic Economic Plan sets out a number of objectives that look like a sound basis for an Industrial Strategy for the wider West Midlands Region. It is significant that the first priority in the economic plan is “To be a world leader in innovation and creativity”.

The strategy emphasises stimulating demand-led innovation by developing a supportive environment bringing together the innovator, entrepreneur, universities, science parks, large companies and public sector organisations. This focus on enabling demand to interact imaginatively and constructively with innovators is potentially a very powerful model. It speaks to a Midland Engine investment fund, supporting scale-up programmes, developing mid-sized business support, attracting foreign investment to key growth and regeneration opportunities. It aims to enhance cultural and creative assets.

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Greg Clarke (SoS for BEIS) gave a speech to the IoD on 27th September outlining the government’s thinking on Industrial Strategy. This adds substance to the objectives, but still says little about the actual measures to be implemented. He speaks of the need for a long term approach to tax, infrastructure, research, education and skills, avoiding race to the bottom. He advocates a tax system that encourages entrepreneurship. He notes the need to support the integrated supply chain of smaller, specialist firms, not be the protector of incumbency but create the open conditions for new competitors. Many policies will be cross-cutting, not about particular industries or sectors. And he emphasises the need for a different approach in different places, no one size fits all. From my perspective, this is all helpful sounding positioning. The question is, should steps be taken locally and nationally to realise these ambitions.

I hope this blog can initiate a focused dialogue on what we think should be the actual implementable planks for an Industrial Strategy for the West Midlands. We have a strong, globally integrated manufacturing capability with much potential for growth. The proposals set out by the GBS LEP look a reasonable basis, but is it complete and what can we do to bring this to reality?

Some questions to consider include:

  • What is meant by ‘industry’ and by ‘manufacturing’? Most products now involve a substantial digital element that plays across service-based offerings where so much value generation can lie. With so much activity outsourced on a services basis, ‘industry’ has tentacles well beyond normal sector definitions.
  • How can demand-led innovation and ‘the entrepreneurial state’ be realised, how can we bring about the public-private innovation Professor Muzzacato argues for, or the cross-cutting creative partnerships the GBS LEP is suggesting?
  • Does manufacturing include business that design and develop IP in the UK, has production abroad, but still generates its value added in the UK?
  • Large companies, mid-cap businesses and SMEs have different needs, but it is clear they have strong inter-dependencies on each other. What elements of strategy will help generate these relationships and enable them to flourish?
  • Complex supply chains feature in much advanced business activity, especially in the West Midlands. What elements of an Industrial Strategy can support supply chain growth, locally, in relationships with EU business, and globally?
  • Most high volume products are made in a very small number of huge plants, where the benefit of high investment and concentrated accumulation of skills is what drives globalisation rather than low wage rates. Will we see manufacturing bifurcate into such high volume global centres on the one hand, with more complex, flexible production on the other? Can the UK play a part in both?
  • If the part of the objective is to promote the “everyone” agenda, then how does that square up with advanced manufacturing, which is notable for its small employment footprint?

Innovation for Growth in a rapidly developing policy context

There have been a plethora of reports and announcements nationally and locally that will have a bearing on the Innovation for Growth agenda over the coming months.  Here is a brief summary of each:

Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations, the headline findings are:
– Public support for the innovation system is too complex
– People are central to successful collaborations
– Effective brokerage is crucial, particularly for SMEs, and continued support is needed for activities that help seed collaborations
– Pump-prime funding would stimulate the development of high quality research collaborations with critical mass and sustainability
– Technology transfer offices need to prioritise knowledge exchange over short-term income generation, and further work is required to improve approaches to contracts and IP agreements
– Government strategy on innovation needs to be better coordinated and have greater visibility

The ‘Productivity Plan’ – a 15-point plan that the government will put into action to boost the UK’s productivity growth, centred around two key pillars: encouraging long-term investment, and promoting a dynamic economy. The most relevant points to innovation are the following:
– A highly skilled workforce, with employers in the driving seat
– World-leading universities, open to all who can benefit
– High quality science and innovation, spreading fast
– Financial services that lead the world in investing for growth
– Resurgent cities, a rebalanced economy

Jo Johnston, Minister for Science, ‘One Nation Science’ speech on 16 July, layed out his views on the importance of investment in science for productivity, the need to drive of innovation nationally and locally (citing the Dowling report and ‘Productivity Plan’, above), and increasing diversity in STEM .

Framework and set of indicators to compare local innovation at LEP level . The report summary starts ‘The importance of ‘place’ to science, innovation and economic growth is increasingly recognised but under analysed and not yet fully understood. This report seeks to provide a consistent body of evidence of comparative innovation strengths in the 39 LEP areas to help LEPs and their partners to marshall their innovation assets to best effect using European Structural Funds and other funding streams.’ In brief, the report largely confirms the strength of our local research base, but highlights poor local business investment and performance in innovation, with the exception of Coventry and Warwickshire.

There is a clear expectation that the above report should form the starting point for local audit of innovation strengths by each locality (at LEP and/ or larger level). Regions that have already conducted some for of Smart Specialisation Strategy as part of their European Structural and Investment Funds Strategies will already have some of this in place. Black Country and Coventry and Warwickshire has done some of this work, but not Greater Birmingham.
Innovate UK new 5 Point Plan has been launched by the New Chief Executive, Ruth McKernan, , which she spoke about on 30 June at Venturefest West Midlands. This is being more fully developed into a strategy to be published in the autumn. The five points are:
1. Accelerating UK Economic Growth by nurturing small, high growth firms in key market sectors
2. Building on innovation excellence throughout the UK, investing locally in areas of strength
3. Developing Catapults within a national innovation network
4. Working with the research community and across government to turn scientific excellence into economic impact
5. Evolving funding models to help public funding go further and work harder

The West Midlands Combined Authority was launched on 6 July by the leaders of the sever Metropolitan Councils. The other Councils in the three LEP areas are invited to join. The launch statement ‘Growing the UK Economy through a Midlands Engine’  was published. It is currently expected that Councils, LEPs and the Combined Authority will co-exist, with issues being dealt with at the appropriate geographic level.
Budget announcement on 21st July that: “City regions that want to agree a devolution deal in return for a mayor by the Spending Review will need to submit formal, fiscally-neutral proposals and an agreed geography to the Treasury by 4 September 2015. The Treasury and DCLG will work with city regions to help develop their proposals.”
Proposals are in development that fit the above criteria and expresses the ambition and appetite for growth, productivity and reform – and the devolved settlement we will need with government to achieve the greatest benefit for citizens, businesses, the economy and the Exchequer. Innovation is part of this, and discussions are underway about what might be included.

The Birmingham Smart City Alliance May Steering Group meeting: digital leadership, choices for healthy lifestyles, a new Smart Cities demonstrator and the importance of personal data

(Moseley farmers' market in full swing. Can technology and "smart" thinking contribute to Birmingham's food culture?)

(Moseley farmers’ market in full swing. Can technology and “smart” thinking contribute to Birmingham’s food culture?)

May’s steering group meeting of the Birmingham Smart City Alliance, held in Baskerville House thanks to the generous hospitality of Birmingham Science City, was an energetic meeting that welcomed four exciting new initiatives in the West Midlands.

A neighbourhood scale Smart City demonstrator

Digital Birmingham described a new neighbourhood-scale Smart City demonstrator project that is being put together with local and national stakeholders under the guidance of the Smart City Commission. The project will tackle issues including sustainable passenger and freight travel; citizen engagement; health and wellbeing; civic enterprise; and digital skills. The next shaping workshop for the project will be held on 2nd June. Please contact Digital Birmingham for more details, or make contact with the Alliance by commenting on this blog or through the Alliance’s Linked In group.

Digital Leadership

We discussed a new “Digital Leaders” programme  for individuals and organisations across the UK involved in delivering sustainable and innovative digital transformation. The programme is intended to promote digital expertise and the adoption of technology, and is led by Cabinet Office. An Alliance member is taking a national role to support the  programme and looking for collaborators to support it in the West Midlands. For more details, make contact with the Alliance by commenting on this blog or through the Alliance’s Linked In group.

Supporting Healthier Food Preferences

We also learned about “Supporting Healthier Food Preferences“, a new healthy eating initiative supported by “The Lancet” medical journal, intended to tackle obesity in Birmingham, including child obesity, and issues such as the saturation of many shopping centres by fast food outlets. The initiative will ask what business is prepared to contribute towards the healthy eating agenda; and what the public sector is prepared to contribute.

The fast food market has grown across the country – aided by online services such as “Just Eat” – but many local authorities are seeking to restrict them. Birmingham currently limits “fast food” usage of retail space to 10%, whilst some other authorities limit it to 5%. However, over half of Birmingham’s shopping centres are already saturated with such outlets by this measure, and many others escape these restrictions as they are classified as “restaurants”. In the meantime, child obesity is a growing challenge in Birmingham – 1 in 4 children in Year 6 are overweight or obese, and rising).

So what can we do? We will be holding a workshop to explore ideas. If you would like to join the workshop, please comment on this blog post or through the Alliance’s Linked In discussion group.

Data Citizen Project

Finally, Julia Higginbotham, Chief Executive of Rewired State, asked our help in connecting Birmingham’s institutions, particularly our Universities, to the “Data Citizen Project” Rewired State are running for the Office for National Statistics to understand the motivations and impact of the use of personal data in finance, education, health and travel. The initiative intends to develop a positive narrative for the use of personal data with consent. Again, if you or your organisation has something to add to the initiative, please make contact through the Alliance’s Linked In group or by commenting on this blog.

Our next steering group meeting is on Wednesday 10th June where we’ll be hearing from a new business-led Skills Action Plan for the digital and technology sectors and about InnovateUK’s new £10m “Internet of Things” demonstrator competition.

For more updates from the Birmingham Smart City Alliance, please follow our blog and twitter feed.

Best regards.

Rick Robinson

Chair of the Birmingham Smart City Alliance Steering Group

Universities as Place Makers – HEFCE Chief challenges West Midlands

The speaker at the Birmingham Science City’s Chief Technology Officers Group on 11 December 2014 was Professor Madeleine Atkins, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Those that braved the wet, wild morning were treated to a concise, comprehensive and current overview of ways that Universities engage with the place that they are located, and the importance being placed on this role across the political spectrum as we move towards a general election. Professor Atkins, as an old friend of the region, was quick to throw down the gauntlet for West Midlands Universities, suggesting that they were very well placed to grow their role as Place Makers.

The ways that universities can fulfil this Place Making role can be summarised as follows:

Engaging with schools has been a required activity of universities for a long time with £600m per year spent on outreach in England. This is moving from a focus on ‘whizz-bang’ demonstrations to deeper engagement in the running of schools. HEFCE is tracking the performance of university run schools with great interest.

The local skills agenda is an area all parties want universities to be more engaged with, through technical undergraduate and masters degrees as well as apprenticeships. Universities should be capatalising on the Autumn Statement announcement of student loans being expanded to Masters degrees, but they should also be exploring different models of training provision and funding that will engage SMEs and older people, for example. In some cases Universities will be a catalyst for skills development, rather than the provider.

Economic growth through university-business engagement has been funded via the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) for many years now and has made huge changes in attitudes of academics and businesses alike to the value of collaboration and knowledge exchange. Impact is now a much bigger factor (20%) in the Research Assessment Framework (REF) that contributes to determining university funding – with the new assessment due out very soon we will see how WM universities are performing by this measure. Universities should be looking at new narratives and ways of engaging with their local economic growth agendas, particularly in the context of devolution of powers.

Social Innovation and Social Enterprise is the newest area of Place Making for universities, although it grows out of a tradition of volunteering. Community based business has become a big growth area and a priority in terms of national and European funding. Some universities have established Business Parks and incubators exclusively for social enterprises, or taken over community assets such as theatres or arts centres.

Professor Atkins had a number of clear messages for West Midlands universities and the organisations that work with them in terms of further building their role as Place Makers:

• Place making is a long game with no quick wins.
• It requires being open to new ideas from inside – staff, enthusiastic students – as well as from outside.
• It requires collaboration with other universities, local authorities, businesses etc on an ongoing and dynamic basis, not just project by project.
• There may need to be recognition that with devolution to second tier cities happening, the Haldane principle of public R&D investment decisions being made solely on the basis of peer review – some decisions may be based on economic geography.
• The funding environment is likely to continue to be challenging so an encouragement to share facilities – this should be seen as an opportunity to share with other universities and business.
• There are funds available to help universities to embrace this place making role, including the Catalyst Fund and the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, but very few WM applications to either so far.

There are people round the country, including the West Midlands, who were aggrieved by the major science funding awards for the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ announced in the Autumn Statement. But Professor Atkins argued this is the result of 10 years or more of building up relationships and a shared vision, a model which has scope to be replicated elsewhere, including the West Midlands.


With thanks to St Modwen’s for hosting the event at the Longbridge Innovation Centre and to Professor Madeleine Atkins for a stimulating talk and discussion. 

Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City

Transferable Models of Innovation in Business

Andrew Sleigh, Chair of the Chief Technology Officers (CTO) Group, cordially opened events by contextualizing the session, explaining that a primary aim of the CTO group was to bring together people who are innovation leaders in their organisation to transfer knowledge on current best practices on how to innovate and how to improve innovation practices. The session did not disappoint.

In summarizing the two excellent speeches from Dr Adrian Woolard, Head of BBC R&D North Lab and the Connected Studio Innovation Programme; and Dr David Jakubovic, Head of European Open Innovation for Procter and Gamble, several interesting themes emerged.

Both speakers stressed the importance of audience and consumer led innovation connected to technology, underpinned by testing and evaluating experiences with users and ideally, in the case of the BBC, through co-creation. Adrian went deeper into this issue by talking about the current trend in innovation thinking of harnessing constructive failure based upon encouraging teams to rapidly learn through prototyping and building experiences. His passion for building ideas was encapsulated in his quote, “ a prototype beats a 1000 meetings”.

Connecting with and attracting external talent, eg from universities and other businesses, was a common driver in achieving collaborative innovation. Creative talent was seen as crucial in helping organisations to define rather than just solve problems. But both speakers articulated, in different ways, that their respective organisations had to focus very hard on defining world-class problems and or challenges in order to stimulate the best creative talent to collaborate with them.

Understanding and articulating the opportunity space was seen as a key driver in helping to foster successful innovation partnerships. However, both speakers stressed that without the ability to establish a common language and shared objectives a win-win relationship was difficult to achieve.

IPR was also discussed. This is where clear differences could be seen due to the nature of industries and activities that their respective organisations were engaged in. Adrian expressed the need within his sector to be flexible but underpinned by clarity, where David spoke of the need for a more formalized approach.


Summary by Professor Simon Bolton, Birmingham City University, of a discussion that was part of a Business Afternoon at the British Science Festival on 8 September 2014

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Enhancing the Climate for Connectivity- The Business of Innovating from a BIS Perspective

Innovation Economy Perspectives from Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation at BIS

The Birmingham Science City Chief Technology Officers Group’s May event was hosted at Birmingham Research Park. We were delighted to welcome Amanda Brooks, Director of Innovation, at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Amanda presented on the role of her department and, in particular, her ambition for it to maximize its proactive stance in response to the opportunities and challenges present within both innovation and economic ecosystems.

Adopting an open, discursive and dialogue-rich approach towards CTO members, Amanda nurtured lively debate and conversation. This enabled both attendees and Amanda herself to come away with much food for thought with which to shape collaborative local, national and pan-European approaches to increasing innovation in science and technology capabilities- all whilst achieving wealth creation.

Amanda shared that she had learned from experience that success in developing and attaining the joint goals of innovation and economic prosperity come down to listening and co-operating whilst leading. For her CTO audience, this translates as a call to members- in their senior leadership capacities- to respond to existing networks and relationships in science, technology and business, and so create the best ‘climate for connectivity’. For Amanda, this is also key to her department’s effectiveness and the measure by which she feels it will thrive or fail to make itself worthy of the ‘Innovation’ in its title. To make this leadership approach work properly, she noted some ingredients necessary for turning this connectivity maxim from simply looking good on paper into creating tangible results. These are: accessibility, investment, internationalization and scalability.


Capturing real results for the UK means making innovation and wealth-creation opportunities easily accessible to businesses. This starts with ensuring that innovation policies are right for us, as a UK economy, and making certain that the structures and tools through which these policies operate allow businesses of all sizes a clear and accessible route to opportunity. A priority for Amanda and her department is supporting the Technology Strategy Board and encouraging its evolution in a way that makes accessibility central to what it does.


Creating accessibility is only part-way down to policy, structures and tools, says Amanda. At the end of the day, progressing in the right direction means committing investment and, more specifically, investment in the right places- sectorally and geographically throughout the UK. As she explains, our historical legacy has not given us too much of a head-start: ‘The UK industrial structure has a distorted pattern in terms of where our research and development spending is going… National research and development proportions of public and private spend are low in comparison to other countries’. But we can make this paradigm shift happen from here on in. No easy task, granted; but a necessary one, for certain. (We may note that these views, reassuringly, answer some of the questions and observations from our last blog on balancing national excellence and local need.)

Putting forward a request to the audience, Amanda asked attendees to help the government understand why it is important to invest more in science, technology and innovation. Her ‘ask’ was not for just a one-off consultation, but a call for regular dialogue, to which the CTO group responded enthusiastically.


Prior to her current position, Amanda spent a number of years in the Far East. She played a crucial role in creating growth policies and industrial strategies, in Singapore, as the UK’s Deputy High Commissioner. The experience, she explained, has made a lasting impression on her and is shaping her approach towards what she does today.   Fundamental to her views on innovation for economic growth is the reliance of this growth on international collaboration- connecting the dots between local, national and international environments, and not treating their dynamics as separate and unrelated. This means encouraging trade and industry relationships, but it is also about adopting and adapting to new ways of working. All of these points were met with considerable approval by the audience and formed the basis for constructive discussions throughout the morning.

Some of the insightful and useful points made by CTO members comprised the following:

  • Science parks are great centres with which to bring together localized innovation networks, strengths and energies.  We can use them to connect to wider national and international dynamics.
  • European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) provide an excellent way to lever not only finances but common goals and priorities from sub-national to international levels. (The audience articulated strongly the need to create and pursue ways of using local and national funds to leverage ESIF, especially those funds from the Local Economic Partnerships and from the Technology Strategy Board.)
  • Our respective organisations, and the ecosystems that we create between us need to be co-ordinated and must work towards the right kind of outputs and objectives. We can look to the international stage for examples of how to do this effectively.

Coming out of the internationalization discussion arose exchanges around scalability.


The group was keen to understand how, given the disappearance of regional- level governance, a coordinated innovation offering could be made by and in partnership with the 39 Local Economic Partnerships. Members found this a challenging prospect, particularly as LEP boundaries do not necessarily overlap with natural innovation and economic boundaries, in geographical terms. Amanda acknowledged the limitations, expressing desire for BIS to facilitate support for LEPs to ensure that they do work with these natural boundaries. (Although she noted two significant realities. One- not being able to change the current LEP boundaries and their inherent limitations; and, two- the more fundamental issue of vulnerabilities inherent in changing political administrations and the operational shifts caused by their respective ways of working.)

Amanda explained that the TSB could help by linking in with the regions, but that this will most likely be in the form of embedding their activities within and with existing environments and organisations, rather than setting up new regional hubs of their own.

Other crucial ingredients of effective scalability identified were: the creation of well-coordinated business support mechanisms; effective procurement channels; and training, knowledge-sharing and up-skilling for businesses in order for them to make the most of opportunities for themselves. So, first, we must foster the creation of business support products with particularly strong co-ordination of both their control mechanisms and content.  (This will avoid the proliferation of near-duplicate initiatives and individual projects, and the confusion and resource inefficiencies that would ensue). Second, there must be recognition that there is a necessarily steep learning curve for public sector organisations to climb, to share good practice in providing a critical mass of procurement routes and means that are realistic for the most innovative businesses (be they large or small). Lastly, there should be greater promotion of schemes such as Horizon 2020- already with a high UK uptake, but which can be promoted even further- where businesses and, of late  most especially SMEs, can lead research and development projects designed specifically to further their own innovation potential and market competitiveness- ideas to wealth in a nutshell.

Amanda posed two questions to the audience:

  • What is working well with BIS’ approach and what needs to be improved? (Where are the successes? Where are the gaps? Where should we spend or not spend? What and where is the evidence for our responses to these questions?)
  • What does the interaction with local, national and European landscapes look like for your organisations and partnerships? How can we make things clearer and easier to access and work with?

What are your views? Do let us know and help us to keep the dialogue with Amanda and BIS very much open and alive.


Amanda can be followed on Twitter: @AmandaBrooksBIS


The Chief Technology Officers Group provides a forum for science and technology innovation leads from larger private and public sector organisations to network, share ideas, increase best practice and discover business opportunities. If you and/or your organisation would like to find out more, please go to:


Our thanks to Dr James Wilkie, CEO of Birmingham Research Park Ltd, and his team for hosting the event.


Susannah Goh, Demonstrator Development Manager, Birmingham Science City


Innovation for growth – balance of national excellence and local need

A recent conference on ‘Research and Innovation in the UK – funding, commercialisation and infrastructure’ started with a summary of the National Audit Office report on R&D spending in the UK, which clearly demonstrates the concentration of public and private R&D spend – 52% of the UK’s spend on R&D takes place in London, the South East or the East of England. The distribution reflects GDP – implying we keep investing in national economic success. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) proceeded to lay out the way that they ensure they invest proven excellence in research, the Research Councils fund prospective research, but largely from proven researchers. Likewise, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB, though notably absent from the platform) as the national innovation agency proudly focus primarily on excellence with their funding within the priority sectors and technologies determined by the Industrial Strategy. Of course limited resources need to be prioritised and it is right to maintain success and excellence and reap the economic rewards as a country.

However, subsequent challenges to the wisdom of an almost exclusive focus on excellence, regardless of geography, were raised during the conference, but left unanswered by the closing presentation on next steps for UK Research and Innovation Policy from BIS.  The first came from Marcus Gibson of the Gibson Index who challenged whether the current focus of public spending on R&D and Innovation was accounting for the thousands of SMEs that are the lifeblood of the UK economy – many of them at the cutting edge of knowledge and technology, but without the voice or resources of bigger business or necessarily the track record. David Hardman of UK Science Park Association and Innovation Birmingham went on to emphasise that much of the countries Innovation is happening in the 3.5k SMEs in Science Parks and Innovation Centres all round the UK, many linked to universities and research centres and a key part of their local innovation communities. Alan Welby of the Liverpool City region LEP specifically flagged the vital role of public investment to strengthen local economies that were ‘behind the curve’, referring to their Knowledge Economy Plan. The LEPs have some resource through European Structural Funds (ESIF) and Local Growth Funds (LGF) to invest in local innovation priorities, but this is small compared to national research and innovation funding; UK direct spend on R&D was £27bn in 2011 (about £10bn from public purse), whilst the total ESIF funding plus match supporting local R&D and innovation activity across all 39 LEPs is likely to be around £0.5bn per year, and only a small amount of RGF funding is likely to be allocated to R&D and Innovation infrastructure.

The Government is due to release an Innovation Strategy alongside the 2014 Autumn Statement.  In the meantime each of the LEPs has some sort of Growth Strategy, and each has recently stated its strategy for using the limited ESIF funds, many with a focus on innovation as a driver for local growth.  Perhaps we can see the LEPs influencing the Innovation Strategy at the national level so that there is a better balance between the current focus on building on and exploiting existing excellence (which needs to be done) and stimulating and supporting research and innovation for local economic growth, as part of the aspiration to see a re balancing of the economy.

Pam Waddell, Director of Birmingham Science City


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