Dr Scott Steedman FREng
Within days of Gordon Brown taking over as Prime Minister he had announced the abolition of the old Department of Trade and Industry and the creation of two new government departments – the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Where previously the brief for innovation sat alongside industry within the DTI suddenly, at a stroke, they have been separated. Innovation is back in the world of academia.
There are of course advantages. Many of our universities have developed powerful and successful research laboratories, and spin-off companies have taken those ideas through development and on to market. Combining Higher and Further Education with Innovation and Skills development may help to further the ‘culture of learning’ advocated by the Leitch ‘Review of Skills’ report last year, even if it does little to strengthen ‘employer engagement’, one of the report’s central recommendations.
The new departments will need to work hard to maintain the connection between the academic knowledge ‘engine’ and the industrial knowledge users. In the engineering sector, this is a high risk strategy. Data from other European countries suggest that very few, perhaps fewer than 3% of engineering companies, are classed as ‘Technology Pioneers’, with a high involvement in R&D. Fewer than 30% of companies are capable of developing or even adopting new knowledge and technology and perhaps around 70% of all engineering companies are simply meeting norms.
If we could shift the 3% to 4% and the 30% to 40%, we would make a vast difference to the capacity of our UK engineering industry base. We are often distracted by the excitement of the entrepreneurial spin-off company that hits the headlines, forgetting that the job is done up and down the country by tens of thousands of companies that we never hear about. This is not just an academic debate about the take up of knowledge and innovation cycles – this is about people.
Understanding new ideas or new knowledge and using those ideas to advantage, is a skill that requires constant nurturing throughout a career. As the pace of technological advance and the complexity of the engineering process accelerate, industry’s capacity to understand the provenance of new knowledge becomes increasingly important. Moves within Government that will potentially widen the gap between knowledge generation, innovation and industry can only increase the skills challenge amongst practising engineers.
Highly innovative science and engineering companies need specialist skills that allow a strong link to develop between their R&D activity and their clients or markets. Even that larger group of companies that is capable of adopting or creating new knowledge continuously needs to strengthen their in-house skills in knowledge transfer. So making it easier for companies not only to take up new knowledge, but to take up new knowledge with real understanding is surely the goal.
All this will be more difficult in a world where the Government focus is on academic innovation. By focusing on the spin-off company rather than the competitiveness of established enterprises we risk slowing the pace of industry ‘transformation’. At the excellent meeting organised by the Foundation for Science and Technology to discuss the impact this would have on the science and engineering community, Lord Broers stressed the vital importance to the UK of sustaining teams of creative engineers and applied scientists, “who can stay ahead of the pack in terms of innovation and speed to product, and who are kept informed of the market and the business environment”. He added that, “The links between product development and innovation and efficient manufacturing should be as strong as possible. Ideally they should be within a single organisation.”
Our new structure has created a break in the chain between skills and industry, and between innovation and market, at precisely the point that needed maximum reinforcement for our engineering industries. We are assured that the new government departments will work closely together to minimise the risk. By DBERR and DIUS, I hope so.
Dr Scott Steedman FREng