Science, technology and innovation as wealth and employment generators: ‘A world to scale’ – from the FT.com / Comment / Analysis
A superb article on how innovation in science and technology may end up in jobs. The principle focus is the UK, but comparisons are made with France and other countries.
“In Britain we’re great at the creative end [of new technology]. But in terms of converting this into serious amounts of revenues, it appears that people in the US are a lot better than us,” says Colin Macdonald, the Realtime executive in charge of the Dundee centre.
The failing perceived by Mr Macdonald has long been a cause of concern in the UK.
The country has won more than 100 Nobel science prizes, beating every nation apart from the US. British inventors have been behind barn-storming inventions from computers and fibre-optic cable to body scanners and carbon reinforced plastic. However, when it comes to maximising commercial rewards, in these and many other cases, they have been exploited primarily overseas. Of the world’s 162 biggest technology companies, only four are in the UK, according to Financial Times analysis.
The cluster of science-based companies around Cambridge – one of the world’s densest concentrations of such businesses – is especially noteworthy. According to a study by the university’s Institute for Manufacturing, the leading 1,000 companies in the city in 2008 registered combined sales of £4.3bn, making profits of £337m and employing 30,000 people. Even in those cases where the businesses have been bought by foreign companies, they invariably retain a strong development operation in Cambridge to take advantage of the expertise of UK scientists and engineers, points out Elizabeth Garnsey, a technology expert at the institute.
But for all these positive points, many observers are worried by the indications of UK weaknesses. Sir William Castell, chairman of the Wellcome Trust, a big funder of biosciences research, says Britain must do more to translate its efforts at the small-scale and creative end of technology disciplines into tangible wealth. Sir William, also a former senior executive at General Electric of the US, adds: “Britain accounts for 3 per cent of global GDP and it’s likely to go down to 1 per cent unless we do more to maximise the commercial spin-offs from science and technology.”
The rest is essential reading. There are lots of lessons for Ireland here too. The fundamental lessons include the necessity of a continuing investment in research and development, and creating the necessary infrastructure and ecosystem that allows scientific and technological innovation to be turned into new jobs.