4G auction is an opportunity to invest in innovation

The UK will soon begin to auction the 4G mobile spectrum, raising as much as £4bn. How that money is spent will be a test of what the UK really values

In a few months, the UK will begin to auction the 4G mobile spectrum - industry experts predict it could raise as much as £4bn. How that money is spent will be an important test of what the UK really values – and how we balance the claims of the present and the future.

We believe that as the proceeds of the auction are a return on past generations’ investment in technology, the responsible option is to reinvest the money raised into innovation and technology. From training new science and maths teachers, to creating new funds to help innovative businesses, £4bn could have a big impact – far more than if it’s simply used to reduce the deficit.

For this reason, Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, and Case (Campaign for science and engineering) have joined together to launch the 4Growth campaign, calling on the government to re-invest the 4G auction proceeds into science, technology and innovation. 

The campaign has attracted the support of high-profile figures, such as Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre, Lord Martin Rees and Andre Geim, the inventor of graphene. They all agree that the future of the UK economy and standing as a world leader in innovation depends on significant investment being made now. 

The UK has a rich scientific and technological history. Britain’s innovators gave the world radio, mobile phones and the internet. Without these inventions we wouldn’t be using the 4G spectrum, let alone raising money from it.

The success of these technologies depended not just on brilliant research and commercial acumen, but also on public support. Marconi’s demonstration of wireless telegraphy in 1886 was backed by our General Post Office. Public money helped fund Sir Tim Berners-Lee and James Clerk Maxwell, whose pioneering insights into electromagnetism underpin today’s wireless communications, and relied on the support of the UK university system.

We need a new generation of researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs to help create an economy fit for the future

Geoff Mulgan, Nesta

These technologies and others like them are essential to the UK’s future. Economists have shown that two-thirds of economic growth results from innovation. It’s no coincidence that so many of the world’s most successful economies are expanding their investment not just in science and technology, but also design and entrepreneurship. The UK’s future cannot depend on competing on low-skilled jobs or natural resources, so prioritising high-tech growth is vital.

The UK is home to a fifth of the world’s top 20 universities. Our scientists have won seven Nobel prizes in the last five years. With less than 1% of the world’s population, we produce 14% of the world’s highest-impact science. Pound for pound, we’re the most efficient researchers in the G8.

We have some of the world’s most innovative and exciting companies, from GlaxoSmithKline, ARM, Dyson and Rolls-Royce, and we’re finally seeing increasing numbers of young people studying science, maths, and engineering. We also have great strengths in the burgeoning fields of big data, machine learning and digital education – all fields that Nesta is now working to support. 

Evidence from around the world shows that innovation works best where government helps to take risks that businesses won’t and bridging the “valley of death” between invention and commercialisation. The governments of innovative countries like Finland, Israel and Korea work alongside researchers and businesses to help bring new technologies to market. 

If anyone is in any doubt of the potential impact that can be achieved by combining public investment and individual talent, you need look no further than the Olympics. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, we won a solitary gold medal, finishing 36th in the overall rankings. The subsequent years saw an investment of money and ambition, with an additional £300m invested since 2008. In 2012, Team GB won 29 gold medals, finishing third.  

Today we need a new generation of researchers, inventors, and entrepreneurs to help create an economy fit for the future, and the right infrastructure to support them: the 4G auction is a great opportunity to back them and to signal that we really are serious about the future.

Geoff Mulgan (pictured) is chief executive of Nesta. To find out more, visit: www.its4growth.org.uk or follow @its4growth on Twitter. To add your name to the petition, click here.

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