The UK government needs to show greater confidence in picking “winning” technologies when funding research and development projects, according to a report by David Willetts, the former minister for universities and science.
Ahead of this month’s general election all the main political parties have outlined plans to ramp up spending on R&D with the Tories pledging to raise it from its current level of around 1.7 per cent of GDP to the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have set a higher 3 per cent target.
Dominic Cummings, one of prime minister Boris Johnson’s most senior advisers, wants the UK to emulate the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) — which has produced civilian byproducts ranging from the first computer mouse to GPS navigation.
In its manifesto, published last Sunday, the Conservative party pledged to create “a new agency for high-risk, high-pay-off research”, as part of a rapid expansion in public funding for science.
But in a report for the Policy Institute at King’s College London published on Monday, Lord Willetts says whichever party forms the next government will need to be more bold.
“There is an underlying problem which needs to be tackled — a surprising lack of confidence in our ability to identify and promote key technologies,” said Lord Willetts, who is also a board member of UK Research and Innovation, the body that directs public R&D funding.
He added that he wants much more public funding to be allocated to research outside universities, and to the applied research needed to bridge the so-called “Valley of Death” — where public spending stops long before applied research is commercially viable
This would be a radical change of approach in the UK. Since the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s, picking winners has been a loaded phrase — the view being that public funding should be reserved for pure science, with the private sector responsible for applying and scaling up new inventions.
Lord Willetts argues that the UK expects business to bear far more of the risk of developing new technology than is usual in the US, Germany or Japan — and that this is one reason why it boasts a long list of Nobel laureates, but has little success in using research to grow big new companies.
The main lesson UK officials could draw from Darpa’s programme managers was “the sheer, bold confidence that they could intervene”, rather than agonising over the role of government, he said.
Since a British Darpa might have a budget around a tenth the size of its US counterpart, it would be even more important to focus its resources, he added.
“Britain cannot afford to follow the US example of trying to do everything: we have to be selective . . . Sometimes we get it wrong but if we all avoid backing any actual technology then we get nowhere.”