Having worked in environment and sustainable development policy for the past couple of years, my recent foray into the world of science and innovation policy represents something of a paradigm shift. Thankfully, the GovNet Science & Innovation conference presented me with an opportune idiot’s guide to this brave new world. For a relative novice like me, it was the ideal milieu in which to learn the game, the players, and (crucially) the lingo.

Who knew that ‘Valley of Death’ was really a term for describing the void that can exist between scientific research and technological innovation? Or that ‘seed corn’ was part of the science and innovation policy wonk’s everyday parlance for describing the role of research in initiating the path to innovation?

From Catapult centres to the new Research Excellence Framework (REF), Horizon 2020 to industrial policy, a range of ideas and solutions were proposed by a panel of distinguished speakers. Notable among them were Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts and Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Commission Anne Glover. There was palpable optimism among the speakers that the initiatives being outlined truly were measures for positive change in the UK. Conversations over lunch and coffee, however, revealed greater pessimism among my fellow delegates, to the tune of: “But we’ve been saying this for 20 years!”

In the unfamiliar territory of a science and innovation conference, this lament seemed strikingly familiar. The environmental scientist in me couldn’t help but consider whether the research and innovation agenda might be having a climate change moment. Was this simply another case of recognising the problem, knowing (more or less) what to do about it, but not actually doing it?

Perhaps this analogy is flawed. But even so, what the GovNet conference made clear is that considerable inertia exists when it comes to accelerating and facilitating the transition of UK science from seed corn to harvest. But inertia is not necessarily such a bad thing. It can force measures for galvanising change to become more innovative. And when innovation is the goal of the exercise, using innovative measures to reach that goal surely makes good sense.

The world of science and innovation policy is yet to reveal to me exactly what these innovative measures might look like. But for now, the seed of curiosity has been sown.

  • Nick von Behr

    As a historian by training the cyclical nature of policy is no surprise, which is why I love the ‘Valley of Death’ label from the Charge of the Light Brigade of nigh 160 years ago. Turning outcomes into real benefits is a continual challenge for even the most hardened professional. Keep at it Emily!