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Growing UK's tech skills base will make or break prime minister's industrial strategy, panel claims

Speakers at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology's industrial strategy debate demand greater clarity on how the government intends to tackle the UK tech and science sector's skills, diversity and regional inequalities

The long-term success of the government’s proposed industrial strategy, and its plans for a prosperous post-Brexit Britain, hinges on its ability to address the skills gap in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

At a panel debate in Westminster, hosted by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (Post), the contents of prime minister Theresa May’s 140-page industrial strategy greenpaper were picked over by parliamentarians and members of the scientific community.

The strategy document, published on 23 January, is geared towards building on the country’s track record of scientific and technology innovation through investments in research and development (R&D), infrastructure and Stem training initiatives.

This, in turn, should help improve the country’s hit rate when it comes to converting home-grown scientific and technological discoveries into viable and growing commercial business ventures, said Jo Johnson MP, the minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation.

“Our investment in science and research can create really positive spillovers for the rest of the economy when they are quickly commercialised, and that really is at the heart of what so much of our industrial strategy is about,” he said, during the event’s introductory remarks.

“The industrial strategy says very clearly that we must become a more innovative economy and do more to commercialise our world-leading science base to drive growth across the UK, and that really runs through the entire document.” 

According to the prime minister, this work will form a “critical part” of the government’s plans for a “post-Brexit Britain”, and ensure the country is in a strong economic position for many years to come, once its extrication from the European Union (EU) takes place.

Feeding back

The paper is now subject to a three-month consultation, as the government seeks feedback from external stakeholders on its content and how best to set about delivering on its aims.

Speaking at the event, the shadow minister for industrial strategy, science and innovation, Chi Onwurah MP, pinpointed several areas where the document lacked clarity, particularly on how it intends to support the growth of the science and technology industry outside of the capital.

“In an age where everybody is going to need to be technically literate and nobody is going to have one job for their entire career, the ability to reskill and retrain an effective and productive workforce is critical, and we don’t see very much investment in further education in this new paper,” she said.

“The key question is, how is it to be devolved? The paper grapples with that, but I hope on the board there will representation from the [other] regions [of the UK].”

“The government’s industrial strategy does not mention diversity once. In terms of science and innovation, we know we’re not reaching our full potential”
Chi Onwurah MP

Onwurah said the paper also fails to make any mention of how the government intends to address the diversity issue in the technology and science community, with regard to providing opportunities for people from a wider range of backgrounds to pursue careers in Stem.

“The greenpaper does not mention diversity once. In terms of science and innovation, we know we’re not reaching our full potential. Only 7% of professional engineers are women, and generally across the ICT sector that is 17%,” she said.

“If we’re going to have the kind of science, innovation and economy we need, we must make sure we are attracting people of all genders and from all backgrounds into science and innovation, and I see very little in this paper to give us confidence of that.”

While the paper is right in its declaration that investments in science and technological innovation are essential to ensuring Britain has a “bright future” outside of the EU, Onwurah warned the government off being too prescriptive when deciding which technologies and sectors to champion.

For instance, the paper makes reference to the £4.7bn investment the government has set aside to invest in the research and development of smart energy technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence and 5G mobile network technologies.

“The industrial strategy is about building the economy we want – we want a high wage, high skill, innovative economy. Every objective could be achieved if everyone in this country was on minimum wage, and that is a concern,” she said.

“The great challenges of our age – ageing, climate change, Brexit – need to be addressed through science and innovation, and that can inspire all the different sectors in our economy to invest,” she said.

“One of the challenges of this sectorial approach is that it can’t take into account the sectors that don’t exist yet. The ones that aren’t chosen can offer a lot and fall between the policy measures.”    

Long-term thinking

A recurring topic of discussion was the funding commitments to science and technology that previous governments have made, which have contributed to ensuring the country is at the forefront of academic scientific research and innovation.

But, as Johnson alluded to during his time on stage, it tends to be overseas companies that reap the benefits of our home-grown discoveries, and that needs to change, argued Patrick Vallance, president of pharmaceuticals R&D at GlaxoSmithKline.

“This country is very much at the forefront of academic research. It is also the case that we have some big high-tech industries – including the pharmaceutical industry – but we have a gap, and that gap is in the commercialisation of [it],” he said.

Central to achieving this is ensuring Britain not only has the skills needed to embark on new business ventures, but also sufficient knowledge and experience to scale those initiatives up.

“We’re quite good at starting companies, but we’re not good at growing them, and that is a key thing we need to address,” he said. “The first thing is you need the skills to be able to commercialise, so we need to make sure we have the right skillsets and incentives. That includes investment in businesses, not just universities, and there may be tax incentives and others things there.”

It is also essential that the aims and ambitions of the industrial strategy are supported for many years to come, and by successive governments, because commercialising scientific discoveries is rarely an overnight thing, he added.

“You need patient investment. This is a long-term process. For reference, in our industry [pharmaceutical], it is roughly 12 years from idea to making a medicine. This is not a short-term investment,” he said.

Read more about the government’s industrial strategy

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