Twin manufacturing robotsCollaborations between the private sector and world-class universities can help to bring innovative ideas to the market and boost the country’s economy.

But how can they best be supported? By investing more in research, and by doing so smartly, according to the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) committee.

In a report on Business-University collaboration published last week, the Committee gives their assessment of the UK’s innovation landscape and outlines recommendations to improve it. The report marks the end of their inquiry on the issue, to which the Society contributed a written response.

The committee recommends increasing financial support for the Catapult centres, plugging the continuing “structural gap” in the UK R&D expenditure and leveraging the mechanisms already in place to ensure the best innovation outcome from existing investments. The forthcoming Science and Innovation Strategy, due to be published soon, is identified as a pivotal point for the Government to act.

These recommendations resonate with those made by the Society in its submission to the Strategy, which was made together with the other UK national academies.

Targets for innovation and research

The report recognises the important role played by Innovate UK—the UK’s innovation agency— (formerly known as Technology Strategy Board) in bridging the “valley of death” between academic research and marketable innovation.

It recommends continuing support for the Catapult centres and increasing the budget for Innovate UK. The Catapults—innovation and technology centres managed by Innovate UK—are seen as a promising way to bridge the valley. Dr Hermann Hauser’s recent review of the network of Catapult centres also recommended that more investment should be made in this area.

At the same time, it is made clear that innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The wider research ecosystem is fundamental to support innovation.

This echoes the views of many business leaders in knowledge-intensive sectors. As George Dyson has said, “Genuinely revolutionary technology begins with research.” The report states clearly that increased support for innovation should not be at the expense of other parts of the science budget. This view is shared by the UK national academies. The Committee recommends that the Government aims for investment in research and development to increase to 3% of GDP by 2020. It currently stands at 1.7%.

Knowledge is power

As every economist knows, market knowledge (or the lack thereof) is a crucial factor in any transaction. Information about who is carrying out innovative research and where it is being done is vital to enable companies to forge effective collaborations.

Access to this information should be made for private companies, and especially for SMEs with limited resource. The report makes a number of recommendations about how existing online and offline tools could be improved to facilitate this.

Better knowledge of the innovation landscape is also fundamental for the government to inform its policy and funding decisions. The development of impact assessment metrics, and their use in the evaluation and funding of research, is given attention in the report. Resuming the collection of detailed data on research and innovation, previously done by the now discontinued BIS R&D Scoreboard, is also strongly recommended.

Strategic hopes

The report concludes by urging the Government “to use the Science and Innovation Strategy as an opportunity to set out its plans to build capacity in the innovation system and to articulate an ambitious vision for this sector”. With the Strategy due to be published any day, the Society supports this conclusion and looks forward to an ambitious and high impact Strategy.