Britain has much to learn from Germany in harnessing research and innovation for economic growth. This was a strong message from the participants at the UK national academies debate at the Liberal Democrat’s Party Conference this week.
Technical skills are often held in much higher regard in Germany, with the status of ‘engineer’ protected by law. Too often the engineers who put satellites in orbit are confused with those who put up satellite dishes. This is a little like calling Tim Berners-Lee (FRS FREng) a web developer, rather than ‘the’ web developer.
Germany has a cohort of innovative companies called ‘Mittelsteins’. These business are often family owned and usually raise capital from traditional banks rather than venture capital, in contrast to many such companies in the UK or US. Many German companies are headed by engineers and senior management skills are more evenly spread across the country. Moreover, professional success can be more easily achieved through technical skills alone rather than exclusively through climbing the management ladder.
Envy of German innovation is not a new phenomena; so what can be done?
The panellists supported long-term investment in research and innovations as frequently UK senior managers focus on quarterly results rather than a decade or more ahead as in Germany. The need for a long-term investment framework for science, innovation and skills is a key message of a recent statement by the UK national academies ‘Fuelling prosperity’ that formed the basis of the debate. Audience members and panellists alike pointed out that there are too few women in science, so we do not realise the potential of half the population. The importance of diversity was expanded on by Julian Huppert MP who stressed the value of engaging people from rural areas and poorer backgrounds. Good careers advice would help improve diversity, and an additional issue is that vocational training has been sadly neglected. A few more scientists, researchers and engineers in government wouldn’t hurt either. Another major concern for many participants is that recent changes to immigration policy means that the UK appears closed for business and science.
But do we really want to be just like Germany? The UK has many strengths of our own. Our creative industries for one. This week the Edinburgh company Rockstar North, is launching Grand Theft Auto V, the sales of which are expected to top £1 billion. The Maseratis and Audis in the basement car park of the office where Rockstar is based belong to game designers rather than the investment bankers next door. A recent ranking of world universities put 8 from the UK in the top 20 and the turnover for the UK engineering industry is three times that of retail. Increasingly UK academics are working with industry, even if the REF hasn’t quite worked out how best to reward commercial success.
Rather than simply mimicing Germany should the UK should play to its own strengths? The world is littered with unsuccessful attempts to copy Silicon Valley. Perhaps we should pick and choose which elements of any science and innovation ecosystem around the world might work well in Britain. The new Catapults Centres, modelled on the German Fraunhofer Gesellshcafts, are a good example, though probably need to be scaled up considerably and given time to bed down.
With research and innovation a major theme of the Liberal Democrat fringe no one can deny that these issues have risen up the political agenda. Increasingly we are seeing greater support across the political parties for science, technology, engineering and medicine. The challenge now is to identify the policies that will bring success in what is still a tough economic climate.