Making the UK Europe’s leading high-tech exporter
When Prime Minister David Cameron invited me to help the Conservative Party reawaken Britain’s innate inventiveness and creativity, I did not hesitate. Here was an opportunity to put forward my own views and those of some of Britain’s leading industrialists, scientists, engineers and academics in a coherent form — a way forward rather than a nostalgic glance back. There has been much debate and even more common ground. The clear consensus is that action is required now. I am immensely grateful for the contributions of these individuals.
The mission David set was clear and ambitious but undoubtedly within reach: for Britain to become Europe’s leading generator of new technology. A challenge, yes. If you will forgive the mechanical analogy, we have the right components: the chassis, an engine and all four wheels. We just need fuel, perhaps a bit of tuning, and most of all a sense of direction. Britain is not in a so-called “post-industrial” state, nor is science and technology a niche. I am not an enthusiast lobbying to return to a bygone era. Industry, science and technology create jobs and create wealth — beyond the Square Mile.
The task was broken down into five key challenges, ones that the government must tackle if Britain is to generate and export more technology.
CULTURE — I worry that too much time is spent coming up with buzzwords and initiatives such as “Creative Britain”, without much substance to back them up. Britain can’t PR its way out of the financial black hole. It’s absolutely right to encourage creativity in all its forms, but why limit it by defining which sectors are creative and, by passive association, those that are not?
- Government needs to get serious about engineering and science — in its commitment to research, delivering skills and backing significant infrastructure projects. High-tech exports create real wealth and will help us recover from our deficit.
- We need to celebrate the many excellent examples of science, engineering and invention, as well as the ingenious people who develop them. Future Conservative ministers need to be vocal about these examples at home and abroad — where ministerial advocacy can reap benefits. Bringing together key parties to consider campaigns, prizes and the role of the Design Council must be the first step for the government.
- Commitments to grand projects such as high-speed rail, nuclear and offshore wind power will demonstrate the government’s ambitions for the country. Commit-ment needs to be matched with better decision-making by ministers. This requires a greater appreciation across government of the challenges facing firms.
EDUCATION — The cultural assumptions of de-industrialisation extend to education. Design and technology education are struggling to shake off a dreary image, and core science subjects are being sidelined in the rush to expand the curricula. I believe that we must give our schools and universities the freedom and flexibility they need to deliver the future generation of scientists and engineers.
- Great teachers are the single most important factor in successful teaching. Facilitating the transition into teaching for other career professionals through a new programme, Teach Now, will be an important step. Utilising the expertise and goodwill of independent schools can also lift the standards of the whole system. We need to ensure that teaching is attractive to our top science and engineering graduates by paying off their student loans over time and giving head teachers greater scope to pay STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) teachers more.
- An urgent review is required to ensure all STEM teachers are able to refresh their basic training and learn the latest advances in industry and academia through continuous professional development.
- Teachers want to teach the three science subjects — a Conservative government must let them. Children are turned off by dumbed down teaching, but rise to the challenge of mastering something difficult and satisfying.
- Technical, as well as academic, qualifications must be promoted. For too long they have been pigeonholed. Government needs to promote a variety of routes to better jobs and securing degrees.
- Universities need greater freedom and flexibility regarding how they are funded and regulated so that they can develop courses best suited to their strategies — be it high-quality research-led teaching courses or more vocational courses with industry experience.
- Better careers advice will help encourage more young people to study STEM subjects at undergraduate level. We should also offer industry scholarships to foster more engineers, schooled in the theoretical and experienced in the workplace.
EXPLOITING KNOWLEDGE — Many of the best new ideas are being created in university labs and the UK has far more than its fair share of leading universities. And the fact that more than 70% of full-time engineering and technology postgraduates are from outside the EU shows that our universities provide world-class research-led courses in engineering. But, with a few exceptions, we are not world-class at taking ideas out of university and into the market. We should:
- Give universities greater autonomy by creating a less bureaucratic assessment system that provides a diverse range of incentives and the space for universities to pursue their own research strategies.
- Promote knowledge transfer offices as a springboard for collaboration by focusing funding on successful offices and providing broader support to other researchers.
- Develop ways of promoting collaboration. Public-private research institutes, capable of developing the next millennium’s breakthrough research, are a powerful way of doing this.
FINANCING HIGH TECH — We need to unlock the potential of angel investors and encourage commercial banks to lend by:
- Increasing the Enterprise Investment Scheme relief available to 30% for angel investors supporting high-tech firms.
- Encouraging more lending by banks to innovative businesses through a government-guaranteed business-loan scheme — provided that the borrower and lender are at risk, too.
SUPPORTING HIGH TECH — The Conservatives need to back those firms investing in R&D through the tax system, better procurement and good export advice:
- Refocus R&D tax credits on high-tech firms, small businesses and new start-ups in order to stimulate a new wave of technology. When the public finances allow, the rate should be increased to 200%. Loss-making small firms also need greater help, and the claims process must be streamlined. These changes need not necessarily lead to a higher overall cost to the exchequer.
- Government ambitions to deliver 25% of procurement and research contracts through SMEs are admirable. Implementation will be crucial and an urgent review should highlight how the government will deliver this.
- UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) support for export-ready firms quickly needs to bring in the expertise of our embassies to promote exports and inward investment. These actions need to occur alongside the much-needed deficit reduction for which the Conservatives have argued. The reforms and recommendations suggested will put the UK on course to become the leading high-tech exporter in Europe.
Not every opinion will be echoed by the Conservative team, nor will all our ideas make it into the final manifesto. Policy suggestions that clash with those developed by other taskforces could have been weeded out, but that would be disingenuous and perhaps disloyal to the scientists, engineers, inventors and manufacturers whose flag I am attempting to fly. My hope is that the Conservatives will see that Britain’s talent for researching, developing, producing and exporting new technology is alive and (relatively) well. With long-term government vision, focus and support, I believe that the nation’s instinctive talent can propel Britain forward out of recession and towards sustainable growth.
We have brilliant, brilliant minds and a good dose of obstinacy. Ideal really.