Agency should be built ‘into a rein­vig­o­rated In­no­vate UK’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business - By Han­nah Boland

THE UK’s na­tional in­no­va­tion agency is be­ing stripped of power to “act gen­uinely in­no­va­tively”, its ex­ec­u­tive chair­man has warned, even as Bri­tain dou­bles down on in­vest­ing in re­search and de­vel­op­ment.

Writ­ing for The Daily Tele­graph, Dr Ian Camp­bell, the current in­terim chair­man of In­no­vate UK, and Dr David Bott, a for­mer di­rec­tor at the agency’s pre­de­ces­sor the Tech­nol­ogy Strat­egy Board, said “out of the box think­ing [has been] dragged back into the box”.

The pair said they were sup­port­ive of the cre­ation of a UK agency, sim­i­lar to the US De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (Darpa), which has been cham­pi­oned by Do­minic Cummings. How­ever, in­stead of “im­plic­itly jet­ti­son­ing some of the in­sti­tu­tions so re­cently cre­ated”, the Gov­ern­ment could use those or­gan­i­sa­tions it al­ready has to drive in­no­va­tion, the pair said.

They said the new agency should be built and in­te­grated “into a rein­vig­o­rated In­no­vate UK”.

In the March bud­get, the Trea­sury ear­marked £800m for a new agency, which it said would fo­cus on “high­risk, high re­ward sci­ence”. This Darpastyle arm is ex­pected to be sep­a­rate to In­no­vate UK, which sits un­der the UK Re­search & In­no­va­tion um­brella.

The Trea­sury said this was part of plans to in­crease pub­lic in­vest­ment in re­search and de­vel­op­ment from £11.4bn to £22bn per year. The con­cept is thought to form a ma­jor part of Mr Cummings’s am­bi­tions for the UK, with his per­sonal motto dur­ing the last elec­tion re­ported to be: “Get Brexit Done... then Darpa”.

The new agency would dif­fer from In­no­vate UK in that it would fo­cus on “blue sky” ideas rather than pro­vid­ing “chal­lenge-led” pro­grammes around spe­cific is­sues, as In­no­vate UK does.

But, when the idea was first mooted last year, some doubts were cast on how the two agen­cies would map to­gether, and whether Darpa would su­per­sede In­no­vate UK. “There must be a Bri­tish Arpa. But build it and in­te­grate it into a rein­vig­o­rated In­no­vate UK, and give the new in­sti­tu­tions au­ton­omy,” Dr Camp­bell and Dr Bott said.

The Gov­ern­ment says it is in­tent on trans­form­ing Bri­tain’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment po­ten­tial by ear­mark­ing the big­gest ever peace­time com­mit­ment to re­search. It is a land­mark, and ex­cit­ing, mo­ment. But to achieve the tar­get, the Gov­ern­ment needs to be more cre­ative.

The stan­dard ideas have sur­faced once again, such as a Bri­tish ver­sion of the US De­fence Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency (Darpa). The hope is that this would have the au­ton­omy to take big risks.

The am­bi­tion can only be lauded – but oth­ers have had sim­i­lar as­pi­ra­tions in the recent past. It was only 15 years ago that a re­boot of UK in­no­va­tion sup­port was launched with par­al­lel am­bi­tions. This time round we must do bet­ter.

Al­ready this gov­ern­ment is spend­ing more – but in­stead of im­plic­itly jet­ti­son­ing some of the in­sti­tu­tions so re­cently cre­ated it could build on them.

In 2003 the Gov­ern­ment recog­nised that sci­en­tific ex­cel­lence alone did not lead to eco­nomic growth. Funds needed to be chan­nelled through bet­ter co-or­di­nated pro­cesses, with more busi­ness in­put and cru­cially with suf­fi­cient au­ton­omy to take risks – es­sen­tial to the in­no­va­tion process.

The emer­gent new or­gan­i­sa­tion was the Tech­nol­ogy Strat­egy Board. One of its first acts was to move from “tech­nol­ogy push” pro­grammes to what it called “chal­lenge led” pro­grammes, overtly try­ing to em­u­late the Darpa ap­proach in the UK.

Sec­tors were trawled to see what ideas might be turned into re­al­ity; spe­cific ar­eas of work were iden­ti­fied that would ad­dress these chal­lenges and com­mer­cially rel­e­vant links be­tween com­pa­nies built to de­velop pro­duc­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties that would ad­dress them. Later anal­y­sis of these projects showed they de­liv­ered what was promised.

But sadly, over time, out of the box think­ing was dragged back into the box. The Gov­ern­ment sought to con­trol the fo­cus of these ar­eas into things it thought were im­por­tant, or would pro­duce po­lit­i­cal div­i­dends – while at the same time protest­ing its re­luc­tance to “pick win­ners”. The cru­cial au­ton­omy af­forded Darpa and trans­planted con­cep­tu­ally into the early TSB has been lost.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion that is now called In­no­vate UK has, how­ever, added to the orig­i­nal tool­kit it in­her­ited. Short timescale projects were in­tro­duced based in a sin­gle com­pany where a new idea could be eval­u­ated for po­ten­tial. The key here was to min­imise the tech­no­log­i­cal risk as­so­ci­ated with the new ideas.

They also recog­nised the ne­ces­sity of sup­port for “demon­stra­tion” projects. From putting 340 elec­tric cars into the hands of real users, through retrofitti­ng al­most 120 houses to a high sus­tain­abil­ity stan­dard, to first stage in hu­man tri­als for new gene ther­a­pies, busi­ness recog­nised that test­ing their “prod­ucts” in the real world gave them valu­able in­sights into what would be com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful at the end of the de­vel­op­ment path­way.

The fi­nal piece of the jig­saw was the re­al­i­sa­tion that gov­ern­ment not only set the reg­u­la­tions but also was a size­able user of many tech­nolo­gies (be­fore Covid-19, it con­sti­tuted about 40pc of GDP), so di­a­logue be­tween gov­ern­ment and busi­ness could also lower the com­mer­cial risk of in­vest­ing in new prod­ucts or ser­vices – as well as smooth­ing the path to pol­icy im­ple­men­ta­tion.

These were all aimed at get­ting be­yond nec­es­sary sci­en­tific break­throughs and per­suad­ing busi­ness to build on them.

It was not just about blue sky fund­ing of out­side the box great ideas: it was get­ting busi­ness to mo­bilise the re­sult­ing ideas big and small. In the early days, the TSB was af­forded free­dom to do this. Once gov­ern­ment went back to pick­ing win­ners and driv­ing tech­nol­ogy push ac­tiv­i­ties, its ef­fec­tive­ness was com­pro­mised.

Re­badged as In­no­vate UK, and then in­te­grated into UKRI, the or­gan­i­sa­tion has been given steadily less promi­nence, less au­ton­omy and less ca­pac­ity to act gen­uinely in­no­va­tively at a time when gov­ern­ment pol­icy is re­stress­ing the crit­i­cal role of re­search and its com­mer­cial de­vel­op­ment.

It is vi­tal that In­no­vate UK’s orig­i­nal man­date is given a strate­gic role, ac­cess­ing its cu­mu­la­tive knowl­edge, freely to de­ploy ap­pro­pri­ate parts of the new fund­ing streams across the mix of its grants, loans, in­vestor part­ner­ships and chal­len­geled pro­grammes so that its shoul­der is put fully to the wheel.

And what of a Darpa looka­like be­ing res­ur­rected once again? We strongly sup­port such an idea, but in tan­dem with what is al­ready work­ing in the UK in­no­va­tion ecosys­tem and a re­newal of In­no­vate UK. It should be free from all gov­ern­ment in­ter­fer­ence. It should work, as in the US, through con­tract­ing in­trigu­ing com­pa­nies. Above all, the Gov­ern­ment must ab­stain from de­cid­ing what is good for in­dus­try and mi­cro-man­ag­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion. The UK Darpa’s re­mit should be to fo­cus on the cut­ting edge and the hith­erto unimag­in­able. To achieve that it must be sup­ple­mented by re­newed ef­forts to get busi­ness to in­vest in the in­no­va­tive as well. Yes, there must be a Bri­tish Darpa.

But build it and in­te­grate it into a rein­vig­o­rated In­no­vate UK, and give the new in­sti­tu­tions the au­ton­omy they need. Bri­tain re­ally could be on the brink of a revo­lu­tion.

Dr Ian Camp­bell is in­terim ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of In­no­vate UK, and Dr David Bott is the for­mer di­rec­tor of in­no­va­tion pro­grammes at the Tech­nol­ogy Strateg y Board

A Bri­tish Darpa has been cham­pi­oned by Do­minic Cummings

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