Premier League CupLast week the UK was ranked third in the 2013 Global Innovation Index produced by the business school INSEAD, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and Cornell University. Only Switzerland and Sweden ranked more highly on the Index of 142 countries that covers nearly 95% of the world’s population and nearly 98% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This makes the UK the best performing medium or large country. The Index acknowledges this success by describing the UK’s performance as ‘commendable’ given the UK’s population is roughly three times that of Sweden and roughly six times that of Switzerland.


Despite the perception that international competition is getting more fierce, in one sense the UK can be reassured that the report accompanying the Index observes that innovation success leads to a virtuous cycle, where investment attracts further investment, talent and innovation. The UK’s historical innovation successes, in the sciences for example, can therefore be cause for comfort. However, this also means that poorer countries that start from a lower financial basis are having a hard time catching up, which risks reducing opportunities for international innovation collaboration and capacity building.


In an interview that accompanied the launch of the Index, Bruno Levin, Executive Director of INSEAD’s European Competitiveness Initiative and co-author of the Global Innovation Index Report noted that a “stop-and-go policy in terms of innovation investment is generally detrimental to innovation performance.”


This resonates with the messages of the recent statement ‘Fuelling prosperity’ by the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences, Royal Academy of Engineering and British Academy that states: “Turning the tap off and then on again disrupts discovery and innovation, hampers the long term approaches needed to deal with challenges such as nuclear power, energy and climate change; and makes it difficult to capitalise on past investments.”


A stable ten year investment framework for research, innovation and skills would surely do much to provide such stability. The UK Government has made its first steps towards this goal in the recent 2013 Spending Round by raising the research capital budget in line with inflation for 2016-17, and providing further commitment to set an overall science capital budget which grows in line with inflation each year to 2020-21.


The UK has not performed quite so well in other recent innovation league tables. Take the 2013 European Innovation Scoreboard for example, where the UK ranked eighth. In contrast Germany and Denmark grabbed the second and third slots in the European league table but were fifteenth and nineteenth in the Global Innovation Index. This discrepancy not only demonstrates some of the limitations of such international rankings but also the breadth of what constitutes ‘innovation’ – as different league tables use different metrics. One important question for a national academy of science such as the Royal Society is the role science plays in this mix.


A major theme of the global innovation index is the uneven or ‘spiky’ distribution of innovation that often persists in particular regions or cities. This feature also emerges from the Regional Innovation Scoreboard, which accompanies the European Innovation Scoreboard, revealing that certain regions are performing better than much of the rest of their home countries. Examples include Prague in the Czech Republic and Attiki in Greece. The localisation of innovation will mean that in the future scoreboards will need to be increasingly granular and presents challenges to policy makers who often control levers at the national level.


While there is debate about who really is most innovative, both the Global Innovation Index and European Innovation Scoreboard show that the UK is in the world innovation ‘premier league’. However, the differing metrics used in innovation indexes, the fuzzy boundaries of the concept of innovation and its spiky nature present future opportunities and challenges for league tables.