Foreword by Ian Ritchie
Rising to the challenge…
Foreword by Ian Ritchie CBE FREng FRSE FBCS CEng
Rising to the challenge
Here in the UK, we have some of the world’s top universities. Alongside the US, our leading institutions dominate all the league tables for high-quality research; but unlike the US, our economy doesn’t rate particularly well in applying this innovative research and development (R&D) to industrial applications – and in the process creating wider economic benefit.
R&D spend in the Higher Education (HE) sector in Scotland is genuinely world leading; with about 8.5% of the UK population, we competitively win around 13.5% of the UK’s research funding. As a result, of all the UK’s regions, Scotland ranks first in R&D spend as a proportion of GDP, and fourth in the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, when we measure private sector business enterprise R&D (BERD), we rate very poorly indeed: only 0.74% of GDP, ranking Scotland eighth amongst all UK regions and solidly down in the third quartile of all OECD economies. (By comparison, BERD in Israel and Korea runs at more than 3% of GDP.)
So, we are great at innovation, but could do much better at creating business success and economic benefit from this innovation. This conundrum has puzzled governments and economic agencies over the years. Part of the problem is that there are very few innovative corporations with head offices in Scotland capable of taking up research developments and bringing them to market.
Many are aware that in Germany, for many years, the various Fraunhofer institutes have successfully applied new innovation to industrial take-up, and this demonstrates a need for some kind of ‘translational’ structure between research and its application.
This issue led Scottish Enterprise to develop three Intermediate Technology Institutes (ITIs) in 2003 in the fields of energy, life sciences and creative technology. This initiative was abandoned in 2010 when it became obvious that they had not been able to successfully identify enough technology which was genuinely market ready.
The UK Government asked Dr Hermann Hauser to look into this problem and, in a report published in early 2010, he recommended setting up ‘translation institutes’ – several of which have now been set up by Innovate UK under the label Catapult Centres.
Here in Scotland, however, we clearly have a more chronic need – even more severe than in the rest of the UK – to address this problem, and that is why the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has developed policies to try and help.
In 2013, SFC, in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise and Highland and Island Enterprise, encouraged the formation of a new breed of ‘Innovation Centres’ to support transformational collaboration between universities and businesses. The Centres aim to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key economic sectors, create jobs and grow the economy. All of these Innovation Centres have backing from industry and draw on all of Scotland’s research expertise in the relevant sector – crucially to work on problems and opportunities identified by industry. They arrange secondments, industrial studentships and spaces for collaborative work, and share equipment.
Their declared vision is: “Using the Scottish university infrastructure, human resources and research excellence as a platform for collaborations across the whole of Scotland, Innovation Centres will create sustainable and internationally ambitious open communities of university staff, research institutes, businesses and others to deliver economic growth and wider benefits for Scotland.”
The SFC has committed £120 million to the Innovation Centre programme over five years and each Innovation Centre is expected to leverage further investment from industry and other sources of funding.
Now that these Centres have bedded down, it is fascinating to see what progress they have made in the short time since they have been established.
According to the reports in this special issue of Science Scotland, it looks good so far, in terms of the number of projects launched and the amount of matched investment now pouring into research. This gives us reason to hope that these new Innovation Centres can rise to the challenge of helping the Scottish economy to compete better in the modern world.
Ian Ritchie CBE FREng FRSE FBCS CEng