A last chance to save UK science from scholasticism

The consultation on the Innovation Strategy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills closes tomorrow. The questions assume hierarchies of committees to tour the world, pick winners and measure success by “publication”.


One commentator has described the consultation exercise as “an attempt to preserve the medieval scholastic traditions revived by the UK research councils in the last century at the expense of genuine wealth-creating, taxpaying, innovators”.

“Research turns money into ideas: Innovation turns ideas into money”.

Twenty five years ago I was criticised for suggesting that the £500 million Alvey Research programme be scrapped because there had been no consideration of how the results were to be turned into product by UK based businesses. They were not, although they do underpin much of the current Microsoft product line and the legacy of the Alvey programme is the reason for Microsoft’s UK research centres today.

If Alvey were to be assessed by the measures proposed in the DIUS public service agreeement, it would still be a triumph. Meaured by the criteria that should be used for judging the success of an innovation programme it was, at best, the ICT equivalent of Concorde.

You will finds the links to the DIUS consultation in my previous blog on this consultation.

The missing question is about how to measure success. The questions assume that academic publications, research spend and “awareness” are measures of success. They may be measures of success for a “pure science” programme. They are not measures of success for an innovation programme.

The measure of success for an innovation programme is the growth of UK-based wealth creating businesses and jobs. And it would be highly desirable if a goodly proportion of these were to produce and export products and services that help address social challenges such as climate change: (recyling, renewable micro-generation etc.).

Over the past sixty years, since the well-targetted application of science helped win World War 2, governments have thrown hundred of billions at blue skies research assuming that it will also be of economic value. Meanwhile UK-based development has atrophied and our innovators are more likely to emigrate and implement their ideas abroad than to succeed in growing a business at home.

Have you responded to the DIUS consultation?

If why not?

Are you content for our universities to decay into scholastic ghettoes surrounded by an information sink society: with your children and grandchildren surfing the cybercrud that floats to the fringes of the global knowledge economy and no-one generating the wealth to pay your pensions?

Or do you want to see them once again, as some still are, at the heart of genuine industrial, commercial and social innovation clusters leading Britain into the 22nd century, while the rest of the world is stuck in the 21st.

“Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

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An alternative way to look at this question: should universities or governments be in the "innovation" business at all - or rather stick to their core strengths (pre-competitive research and, cough, competent public administration) and leave the business development to businesses?

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