How Britain can keep driving growth and innovation

UK universities have rightly seen long-standing public investment in fundamental and curiosity-driven research. But who is looking after the more immediate innovation needs of businesses and public services? The capacity to turn innovations into wealth and social benefit relies on the innovation, research and technology (IRT) sector to supply specialist support to help pull through new technology into everyday use.


A recent independent study of the impact of the IRT sector on the UK economy (Oxford Economics, 2014) shows the extent to which the sector succeeds in punching above its weight, dwarfing the activities of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes. It contributes catalytic impact of over £32billion (2.3 per cent) to UK GDP, generating more than £13billion in annual tax revenues, but consuming just 0.3 per cent of government spend annually!

The sector provides skills, facilities and knowledge to translate technological innovations into commercial business and public services. It includes Catapult Centres, independent research and technology organisations, many government public sector research establishments, some specialist private companies and university enterprise offices. It employs 57,000 scientists, engineers and technologists (equivalent to the Russell Group’s academic workforce). Its organisations have grown by 2.5 per cent yearly (mean) since 2006, and their historically high productivity has remained strong, despite national economic stagnation.

In addition to supplying practical scientific and technical skills and experience, as well as development facilities and training, the sector provides help with demonstrating performance at scale, user benefits, and compliance with regulation and standards. Such activities are part and parcel of the progressive risk-reduction needed to reach technological and commercial maturity.

As Britain emerges from the worst recession since the Second World War, we must waste no time exploiting this world-class asset. AIRTO’s members are committed to driving 4 per cent yearly real-term growth over the next decade. The next government must, in partnership with business, ensure that our national innovation infrastructure is sustained and developed, that the necessary STEM and business skills are built up, and that, once matured, innovation becomes embedded in both our public services and business – whichever party governs us to 2020.

Professor Richard Brook is president of AIRTO (Association of Innovation, Research and Technology Organisations)