Kellie Beirne column: Today’s crisis reminds us of the value of science and innovation

Thought Leadership

The UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance is well known to me as a member of the Science and Innovation Advisory Council for Wales.

Never, though, did I expect to see him on my screen every day, presiding over a pandemic that has so spread so rapidly.

In a world that suddenly seems strange and alien, there are a few upsides. Along with the swell of kindness, neighbourliness and community spirit, and the doggedness of our committed NHS, care and public service workers, one bright spot for me has been the spotlight on Sir Patrick and what he represents in terms of science and innovation.

From the lightning speed at which researchers, universities and companies have mobilised and diversified around ventilator production, to gin distillers rapidly re-purposing as producers of hand sanitisers, right through to businesses mapping genomic patterns and developing wireless sensor systems to scan for the virus, science and innovation is all around.

Which is great but ironic, because we persistently under-fund it. The under-investment in research and innovation at UK level, and the need to be at least equal to other OECD countries, has prompted the commitment to 2.4% of national spend being invested in innovation and research by 2027, and 3% over the medium term.

This is to be welcomed, but is it enough? In Wales it is estimated that around 1% of national output is currently invested in R&D. In his inaugural budget speech on 11 March, the Chancellor announced that to meet the target 2.4%, levels of spend on R&D would reach £22bn by 2025. Again, this is welcome – but is it enough?

It’s not just about Covid-19.

We will, hopefully, continue to be guided by the science and, in time, will beat this thing. But the rapid pace at which future significant challenges will continue to hit us shows no signs of abating. From the climate crisis to caring for an ageing population, clean tech infrastructure to a new kind of knowledge economy steeped in data and automation – the need to continually adapt, innovate and show agility, flexibility and speed, will continually increase.

Responding to this isn’t just about increasing budgets. As with the current response to Covid-19, we are starting to see the market being flooded with liquidity and funds. With this still comes a responsibility to direct resources at worthwhile investment opportunities and not just any ones.

It would be easy to focus on the ‘fast and easy’ growth opportunities in the service-led economy; but we must be more considered, and think about how we ground local wealth building and foundational renewal, and target more of the complementary industrial clusters that give us a foothold in the industries of the future.

We also cannot afford to further erode the very public sector institutions so central to not only overcoming Covid-19, but leading the response to shaping the future around the mountain of other industrial and societal problems to be solved. The public service isn’t there to simply ‘bail out’ or de-risk, or enact old-fashioned edicts of ‘enabling’; but to mobilise around challenges and missions, to take more risk in return for rewards, to actively support and fund R&D and be the entrepreneurial state.

‘What’s innovation ever done for us?’

asked my colleague the other day, as they Zoomed into a meeting, explaining their lateness as a result of having to Skype the local GP surgery to ask for home delivery of a prescription for their self-isolating elderly parents.

So what can we do to make sure science and innovation don’t slip down the back of the sofa in 12 months’ time? Well, from a CCR point of view, the designation of innovation and challenge funding is key to this, particularly around R&D activity in the public space, local wealth building and the foundational economy, and prioritising investment to seed, support and develop cluster approaches to priority sectors, right across the region.

I also think there’s a real role for public and private sectors in venture and risk capital for new technologies, and having the confidence to put out open calls for innovation in response to the big challenges of the day. Growing worker’s wages, refocussing on training and skills, becoming more mission driven, and developing better understandings of the different types of ‘economy’ that exist and interact, are all key pieces of the puzzle.

Follow the science isn’t just a mantra for these times, but for all times. Science deals in fact. But in these facts, we must also place faith.


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