MIT tshirt

With a panel composed of Rt Hon David Willets, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, Ian Shott and Professor Rachel Griffith you would expect a certain enthusiasm for the role of research and innovation in fuelling the UK economy, and there certainly was!

This was the last in a series of three fringe events held across the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative Party Conferences titled ‘Can research and innovation fuel the UK economy?’. The fringe events were run by the four academies and built on their joint statement, Fuelling Prosperity, that highlighted the role of research and innovation in stimulating the UK economy, and underpinning long-term sustainable economic growth and value for society (Storify here).

The distinguished panel seem to broadly agree on the role for research and innovation to support the economy and were quick to try to dispel some myths about UK success. Nancy Rothwell noted that the UK wasn’t as bad at translation as everyone made out – only coming in behind Switzerland for university-business links in the recent World Economic Forum rankings. And more patents or spin-offs aren’t the answer either, David Willets stating that apparently MIT makes more from selling branded t-shirts than its patents! Tax cuts? Nope, Rachel Griffith pointed out tax cuts for R&D don’t promote new R&D that wouldn’t be happening already.

So if the UK is doing OK at translation and commercialisation what more needs to be done?

According to the panellists, the UK needs to remain open to the world as science is now globalised – over half of UK papers published with international partners – but this isn’t a race to the bottom. The UK must maintain its excellent science base, including blue skies research, to maintain its advantage but also so that it has the ‘absorptive capacity’ to incorporate the best research from all over the world. And what will achieve this … funding that is stable and long term. Willets wasn’t willing to make any commitments on this point, however.

With the gates on the 2015 election race due to open shortly it will be interesting to see if this positive attitude towards long term funding and research and innovation makes an appearance in the upcoming manifestos. We’ll have to see if this enthusiasm gets translated!