WHEN David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, launched the Government’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’ strategy, he was refreshingly frank.
“There is the fear politicians are always seduced by baubles,” he conceded. “We go for glitzy new projects rather than what has real potential.”
There is an undeniable touch of glitz about the strategy. At its heart, outlined initially in a paper by Willetts for the think tank Policy Exchange, are eight areas of science in which Britain boasts world-class capabilities.
All have significant potential to drive the UK economy: big data, commercial applications of space, robotics, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, advanced materials and energy. The Government has since added ‘quantum technologies’ to the list.
Whatever the temptations of scepticism, however, it is clear that the ‘great technologies’ are much more than a passing PR ploy. They constitute a key part of the Government’s innovation-led industrial strategy.
Willetts’ report was at once a rallying cry, heralding a drive to make Britain the “best place in the world to do science”, and a wake-up call. While we have world-class research and a supple market economy, Willetts argued that we have often failed in the “valley of death” between scientific discoveries and commercial applications.
The Government has since earmarked more than £600m to accelerate the development of these technologies, which politicians hope will be a platform for Britain to enhance its status as a leading player in the global technology market.
Yorkshire is in an excellent position to lead the effort. Sir Andrew Witty’s Independent Review of Universities and Growth published in July 2013 highlighted that the universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York have outstanding portfolios of research in these areas. If the Government is looking for hubs to develop and exploit the ‘Great Eight’, Yorkshire should be high on the list.
Over the next few months, I will explore these technologies, discovering some of the ground-breaking science and looking at how research in our local universities can contribute not only to national and global issues but make a difference to the growth of Yorkshire’s economy.
The strong working relationship between the universities and Local Enterprise Partnerships will be key as we explore how strategic support for these technologies can boost both the Yorkshire economy and job market.
At the University of Leeds, for instance, scientists are building clever robots for surgery, patient rehabilitation and prosthetics among a host of other applications.
One robot recently explored previously inaccessible tunnels of an ancient Egyptian pyramid. Leeds’ robotics work will be part of an exhibition at the Natural History Museum aimed at showing how university research impacts our lives.
At the University of Sheffield, scientists are at the cutting edge of innovation, manipulating the physical and chemical properties of metals, ceramics, plastics and new composites to create improved and novel materials with specific characteristics: strength, corrosion or stress resistance to name just a few.
This research directly meets the needs of industrial partners – from local SMEs to multinational corporations. Such open engagement with industry allows universities to work with companies to swiftly and efficiently translate research findings into products in development. And rapid uptake of the research gives material manufacturers’ a competitive edge.
Further north, the University of York has established the Biorenewables Development Centre (BDC) which helps businesses develop ways to convert plants, microbes and biowastes into profitable biorenewable products.
In his Eight Great Technologies report, Willetts comments on the challenge that Britain faces in reaping economic benefits from science without clunky intervention from the State. But how can we do this?
The answer, according to Willetts, is to make our science easy to finance and easy to transfer. At a time of economic hardship, investment in science is an encouragingly long-term view.