Scientific innovation is crucial for UK economy but a long term plan is still needed

Mark Halstead, AECOM

Mark Halstead of AECOM comments on the government’s latest strategy for science and innovation unveiled on 17th December. 

The UK has a long history of scientific innovation, but as a country it has sometimes struggled to fully capitalise on its early success, allowing foreign competitors into the race.

While we should be encouraged by the government’s recent announcement to invest £5.9 billion over the next five years, it is important that the spending allocation be carried out with a full understanding of both where we are now and, more importantly, where we want to go.

A number of further steps remain necessary, including the development of a coherent national estates strategy to link scientific innovation to economic impact. I would like to see a national review and assessment of the UK’s existing scientific infrastructure and capacity that extends beyond the government estate, achieved through collaboration between the private, public and tertiary sectors.

"Understanding the economic constraints of the day, we have a responsibility to invest smartly. This means recognising that the historic investment in science and engineering in silos must be addressed."

This insight would be used to then help create regional hub-and-spoke models around areas of research excellence, cementing the UK’s international reputation in science. We are already seeing this to a certain extent.

Key innovation hubs such as Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester are developing into global beacons in human, physical and material sciences, respectively. For example, AstraZeneca is shifting its focus away from its Alderley Park and Loughborough sites and towards the firm’s new strategic global centre in Cambridge.

But if these regional hubs are to continue to lead the way, government must act as a guiding hand. It is through this that we can build effective partnerships between government, higher education and the private sector. Such partnerships would allow a regional hub-and-spoke model to reach its critical mass, with the necessary buying power and the ability to attract private companies and financial funding, thus creating a virtuous circle.  

Understanding the economic constraints of the day, we have a responsibility to invest smartly. This means recognising that the historic investment in science and engineering in silos, where projects were too often looked at in isolation, must be addressed. While investment decisions may appear sound in the short term, failure to understand them within the context of a wider, national framework often results in poor long-term outcomes.

The Discovery Park in Sandwich, Kent, is an example of how a world-class facility has effectively had to reinvent itself in order to flourish. Local planners recently gave the go-ahead to a masterplan to develop the site and create better transport links, which are intended to address the site’s rather isolated location and attract further private investment. 

The government’s plan does mark an important step towards addressing these challenges, with much-needed investment to support capital expenditure for creating world-class infrastructure that is fit for the UK’s world-class scientists. However, it is imperative that investment decisions be placed within a coherent and comprehensive long-term planning framework. 

Mark Halstead is head of Science & Innovation EMEA, AECOM