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Can the Government build an industrial strategy?

It’s fair to say that politicians, with a few noticeable exceptions, have never really ‘got’ technology. Whilst they have often attempted to make the right noises – Harold Wilson’s allusion in the 1960s to the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’ is an example – their actions have proved very different to their words.

Some administrations decided that support for technology should be left to the market, others attempted to intervene, but backed the ‘wrong horses’.

Recently, however, there has been a resurgence in investing in emerging technologies and the architect for many of these initiatives was ex industry minister David Willetts. The coalition government, for example, saw potential in graphene and put more than £120million into the so called ‘wonder material’. Similarly, in 2013, then Chancellor George Osborne committed £270m to quantum technologies.

But the last Government picked up the baton with enthusiasm. In the months leading up to the General Election, Chancellor Philip Hammond committed to increasing investment in research and development by £4.7billion over the next four years, including £1bn to create the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). The aim is to create more jobs and to raise living standards.

The ISCF has six major thrusts: clean and flexible energy; cutting-edge healthcare and medicine; robotics and artificial intelligence’; driverless cars; manufacturing and future materials; and satellites and space technology.

Alongside these moves, the last Government published a Green Paper entitled Building Our Industrial Strategy. In her foreword to the Green Paper, Prime Minister Theresa May said it represented a ‘new approach’. “Not just stepping back and leaving business to get on with the job, but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success.”

Alongside support for emerging technologies, there is the need to address a number of other issues. The Government says it’s committed to tackling ‘underlying weaknesses’ in the economy, including low productivity. But there is also the glaring issue of commercialisation of new technology and the UK’s engineering skills shortage.

Historically, the UK hasn’t fared at all well at commercialisation; there is a trail of ‘invented here, exploited elsewhere’ technologies. Quite why this is the case has never been explained satisfactorily; some say it’s a lack of management ability, others point at short term investment pressures.

Industry secretary Greg Clark says the ISCF is designed to produce a ‘step-change in the UK’s ability to turn strengths in research into commercialised products’.

But those technologies have to be developed and the newly created UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) aims to bring a more collective vision to science and research. CEO designate Professor Sir Mark Walport believes: “It has to be about making the whole greater than its parts [and] UKRI has a crucial role to play in achieving this.”

What does industry think about the moves? Tony King-Smith, CEO of the ElecTech Council, said: “There has never been a greater need for a cohesive, overarching industrial strategy. We look forward to working with the government alongside other vertical and specialist industry sectors to ensure the UK’s future industrial strategies evolve into something that demonstrates a unique level of ‘joined-up thinking’ across industries, skills, research and business.”

The cutting edge sectors on which the Government is focusing currently account for only 1% of UK employment and 10% of jobs in the manufacturing sector. It will be interesting to see how these figures bear comparison in the coming years.

Graham Pitcher

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