The industrial strategy, right on man!

The government’s green paper on Building our Industrial Strategy was published in January. Our enterprise director, Lars Sundstrom says it’s about time…

Last month the government published its long awaited industrial strategy. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn,” I hear you say. Well, you should. When I read it, I thought to myself, “Finally. They’ve actually got it right this time. Absolutely spot on,” as you Brits would say!

The UK lags far behind other European countries like France and Germany in terms productivity, a trend which is now worsening quite rapidly.  So while our French neighbours enjoy a glass of wine having finished work while we are still toiling away with the longest working hours in Europe for lower output (and hence less money to buy decent French wine), one has to ask, what makes them so much smarter than us?

The science base in the UK is the best in the world. The UK, per capita, has the strongest academic sector by far, especially in terms of scientific output. It outperform its nearest rival the (United Stated) by almost three to one. In other words, the papers written by British boffins are more highly cited than anyone else. The UK has six universities ranked in the top 50, with three in the top 10 (Oxford holding the coveted number one spot), while Germany has only one and France has none.

So although the UK has the best science, its ability to translate that into economic growth seems to be lacking.

Some years before I joined the West of England AHSN I worked in biotechnology and spent a considerable amount of time in South San Francisco, which is where this new industry was born – only around 30 years ago. Biotechnology grew out of genetic engineering and cell biology, both of which owe their foundations to British scientific genius. Yet I remember, as I used to drive down Highway 101 in my open top Mustang, just how many British scientists I met who had brought their technology with them to develop it over there, and how frustrated they were that they couldn’t do that back home.

The industrial strategy is seeking to redress this and it has done two things that, in my view, are absolutely right on:

1) Invest heavily in translational science and infrastructure for applied research, and reward those that do it;

2) Not doing it at the expense of basic science but maintaining fundamental research budgets.

The secret to France and Germany’s comparative success in productivity is their ability to provide the right incentives and infrastructure for applied research and product development/testing, as well as a well-developed industry-university interface. In particular, success comes from the valorisation of people who want to do applied and industrial research and who are not considered inferior to university academics, far from it. The pinnacle is to work for a top company: Vorsprung durch Technik!

I am really pleased to see the recognition in the strategy that AHSNs will play an important role acting as catalysts for the conversion of innovation into new healthcare products and services through our involvement with the SBRI Healthcare programmes, test beds and the new accelerated access partnerships and innovation exchanges.

So I for one welcome this strategy. The government is absolutely on the right track, but it’s going to take a long time; in Germany it took over 25 years of continuous investment. But just imagine what the UK would be like now if that investment had been made 20-30 years ago and the UK had been the home of biotechnology!

Britain started it all with the first industrial revolution, it largely missed the second and third through lack of investment but. as we now enter the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, it looks to me like the UK is now on the right track. See here if you are wondering what the fourth revolution is about.

California’s GDP is now around $2.5 trillion just behind the UK at $2.8 trillion, with biotech contributing about $200 billion, so I have to say thank you Britain for sending over all your scientists and the huge role you have played in building our local economy – I was born in California in case you hadn’t guessed. We will never forget what you’ve done for us, and have a nice day!

Read the NHS Confederation’s briefing on the Industrial Strategy.

Posted on February 7, 2017 by Lars Sundstrom, Director of Enterprise, West of England AHSN

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