I seem to have collected a number of USB sticks over the years, and thought I would see what's on them. I came across this piece written in 2010 for nobody in particular. I want to know if it's still true. The Willetts referred to is now Lord Willetts by the way. Oh, and I also found this picture too.
A brain in the hand is worth two in the Willetts
Tony Blair used to talk up the ‘information economy’ as if it would save the UK from economic annihilation – implicit in his vision was the idea that Britain had a comparative advantage over places like China, a country today still begging for ‘technology transfer’ (aka intellectual property rights) in fora like the UN’s global climate change negotiations. In areas such as biotechnology Britain does have a global lead. And of course we possess four out of five of the world’s top ten universities. The UK still has a top ranking in many areas of intellectual innovation. But even this now seems under threat thanks to the shortsightedness of the Coalition government.
Two headlines in the same days’ papers illustrate the point. In “The mystery of Britain’s missing exports” the Guardian reported on the 9th August 2010 that after a ‘much discussed boom in manufacturing’ and prolonged lower exchange rates, our exports were just not taking off. On the same day The Times reported “R&D: Britain falls behind in race to innovate.” It said that “The level of research and development spending in the UK has fallen more steeply in Britain over the past two decades than in any other leading nation.” The synthesis between these two reports occurs in the words of John Lucas, policy advisor at the British Chambers of Commerce, who was quoted in the Guardian saying ‘we should welcome the shift away from making low-margin, low paying consumer goods to highly specialised, high-margin parts and services.’
OK – the long term decline in R&D spending preceded the election of the Coalition, but what the government is saying now threatens to cut off innovation even further, and is a startling example of non-joined-up thinking.
Talking before the election, the Tory Party’s then Shadow Science Minister said “Supporting blue sky research is particularly important, because no individual can accurately predict where the next great discovery will arise. That’s why we must preserve our universities’ capacity to carry out such research.” (Public Service Review: Central Government, issue 20) Contrast that with what the government is saying after the general election. Speaking at the Royal Institution, David Willetts, the guy who actually got the Science Minister’s job said ‘Instead of British scientists leading the way with new breakthroughs, it might be better to focus instead on taking, developing and exploiting the discoveries of others.’ He went on “Why does it matter economically that we should be first or that something should be discovered by a Brit?” (Yorkshire Post, 10/7/10)
Willetts must believe that China’s vast investment in science education is nothing at all to do with leapfrogging us. In the Nobel Prize Olympics, it’s pretty bloody obvious that China’s mission is not merely to come first in the medals league table, but to use science as an economic driver.
On a slightly different tack, I referred at the beginning of this article to China’s insatiable demand for technology transfer to be included in the global climate change talks. They made a real issue of it. Does this tell us anything? Could it be that we still have an advantage in climate change mitigation technologies? Might this be worth preserving? If so, than the cuts the government is instituting at DECC, which fall disproportionately (disproportionate because the vast bulk of DECC’s budget is spent on the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) on renewable energy activities is suicidal. Recent reports (see http://www.businessgreen.com/business-green/news/2267533/fossil-fuel-subsidies-dwarf) show that the global subsidies for fossil fuels outpace those for renewables by 10 to one. Is this a trend that the UK is now set to continue? R&D, pure research and innovation where it’s needed most seems not to be on the Coalition government’s agenda. It leads me to question whether it actually believes Britain is capable of any new kind of industrial revolution anytime soon, still less a green industrial revolution. Yet I predict we will not hear an end to Ministers saying how green technologies will grow the economy. They will merely omit to mention that it is China’s they are talking about.