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How to convert UK excellence in science and research into wider economic success

4 min read

The Chair of the APPG on Data Analytics, Daniel Zeichner MP writes that the UK's 10 Catapult centres need strong foundations and proper funding to ensure UK industry prospers.

For MPs elected like me in 2015, the last two and a half years have been extraordinary, with two general elections and a referendum. However, the issue of how to convert UK excellence in science and research into wider economic success crosses party lines. Representing Cambridge, with two different but very successful universities, I see this challenge regularly. The list of Cambridge achievements is a roll-call of human breakthroughs, and thanks to our welcoming attitude to international talent, we are at the leading edge in many areas.

Translating that into success for British industry has proved tougher, but current efforts can be traced back to Gordon Brown’s government in 2010, when Peter Mandelson used a period of crisis to reinvent industrial strategy. Seven years and three governments on from the invention of Catapults, centres which aim to expand the UK’s capacity for innovation and drive economic growth, it is clear that we need further measures like this to transform our productivity.

Productivity in the UK has struggled since the economic crash, and fell by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2017. In my view, this is not helped by the current government’s belatedly recognised failure to invest in skills training, and stifled wage growth. Productivity is improved through innovation; we need to learn how to better adopt new technology. Others do better. When it comes to adopting innovations such as e-invoicing, we trail behind the majority of our European competitors. Given the opportunity, Catapults may yet play a transformative role by matching industry with uptake of technology.

The achievements of collaboration between universities and industry are well-showcased in my constituency. I recently visited the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and was impressed by their collaborative partnerships with world-leading engineering companies such as Boeing. On the other hand, I found the Government's decision this summer to close Cambridge’s Precision Medicine Catapult disappointing. The Cambridge life sciences sector is world-leading, and the Catapult was well-placed to take advantage of this medical excellence. 

Catapults will soon be part of UKRI, the proposed merger of the UK’s seven research councils, Innovate UK, and parts of HEFCE. This should be advantageous, allowing more seamless diffusion of research expertise into the private sector. However, this only works with robust resourcing. Catapults are currently funded equally in three parts: core public funding, competitively-won business-funded R&D contracts, and collaboratively applied R&D projects, won competitively from UK and EU funding through Horizon 2020. This EU funding is at risk as the current government's approach continues to baffle and confuse in equal measure, and I fear that Catapults may be left on shaky ground.

More optimistically, I look forward to a Labour government that will support Catapults through an active industrial strategy; ensuring that Horizon 2020 projects are properly resourced regardless of what happens in 2019, and that the UK remains part of Horizon 2020 going forward. Labour wants to establish new Retail and Materials and Metals Catapult Centres to ensure that the adoption of new technology enhances the lives and skills of UK workers while protecting the future of these industries. I also want to see R&D spending raised to 1.85% of GDP, with an additional £1.3 billion of public investment within the first two years of the next Government.

Innovation will be at the heart of a very different government, and Catapults will facilitate the widespread adoption of technology in industry, alongside a National Education Service. This is how we increase productivity - by driving innovation, in stark contrast to the low wage, low cost vision of the current Government. It is the way that we ensure the Fourth Industrial Revolution delivers high quality jobs and that British citizens can look forward to prospering in a fast-changing modern world, looking forward with confidence, not fear.

This article also appears in the Labour conference edition of the House Magazine. Daniel Zeichner MP has responded to an article from the Catapult Network which can be found here.

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