Coffee House

David Willetts looks back to the future for economic growth

24 January 2013

8:49 PM

24 January 2013

8:49 PM

Can science and technology become the backbone of the British economy? David Willetts thinks so — he’s set out eight great technologies he believes will ‘play a vital role in delivering economic growth’. The Universities and Science minister explained today why British scientific research needs beefing up, albeit in a very free market manner:

‘The challenge is to reap an economic benefit from this capability without clunky interventions that risk undermining the open curiosity-driven research which is what makes us special in the first place. For too long the UK has been hampered by a ‘valley of death’ between scientific discovery and commercial application. If we tackle this, then we can become the best place in the world to do science’

But like an old Kraftwerk album, Willetts’ vision sounds bizarrely futuristic and nostalgic at the same time. His ideas include utilising big data (which I’ve written a few sceptical posts on before), satellites (for data transmission), robots (with British algorithms to speed up laborious tasks), modern genetics (home turf to the host nation of Watson and Crick), regenerative medicine (a $5 billion industry by 2014), agricultural technologies (food production is now our biggest manufacturing sector), advanced materials (again, the nation of Wedgwood and Pilkington can lead the way) and energy storage (we’ve lost our way to international competition on this one).


Britain has tried this strategy before, though Willetts specifically discouraged comparisons with the 1970s — when the government picked specific winners. The minister appears keener to take inspiration from the 1980s, when entrepreneurship and innovation were rampant. During this period, Britain had a significant role in the early personal computer industry. Firms such as Amstrad, Acorn and ARM all played a key economic role in building new markets.

But since then, British firms have struggled to keep up with the huge R&D budgets of American firms. Now, scientific developments are moving global with breakthroughs today taking advantage of pan-national knowledge. Yesterday’s announcement that data can now be stored in DNA was a collaborative American-European effort.

It’s pleasing to see Willetts looking for growth with an entirely new focus. But he should remember Britain has tried to be a driver of innovation in the past. Sadly, the returns were not as long-term and significant as the government would have hoped.

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Show comments
  • challange

    The pressure children are under at an early age by parents and the system is often
    ridiculous. Not all can go to university. Let schools teach skills that are
    needed to support their future. Values of achievement need to be redefined. To
    write a patent that is granted is difficult and an achievement in itself. Ideas
    to manufacturing process are far apart. The difficulty in the UK is interests
    of companies and their role not to look at the bigger picture and the knock on
    affect of not manufacturing. We claim to be green not burning fossil fuels then
    buy many products from others that burn freely. Energy costs are holding the UK
    from any real development. Give people back control of their lives which at the
    moment are controlled by high prices. Harvesting Energy or Fusion. Ideas are readily recieved abroad. It is much more difficult in the UK

  • Olaf

    Yes all these things are wonderful and in the future you might employ maybe a few dozen people in them. When you can earn more as a checkout operator than a science graduate researcher you know things are wrong.

  • Rory Sutherland

    The danger here is that we confuse invention with innovation. The greater economic gains may come from encouraging wider, faster adoption of technologies which already exist.

    Just as a thought experiment, £10bn (or less than half the money to be spent on HS2) would provide 25% of British homes with high-definition video conferencing equipment. What effect would that have on congestion, needless commuting – and indeed property prices, since if people could work from home for several days a week, they could happily live further from their place of work?

    Again, for a tiny fraction of the cost of HS2, you could equip all UK trains with wifi, powerpoints, etc. These are humble aims, but possibly more valuable than a fancy train that (as is the nature of High Speed trains) only stops infrequently, and hence largely benefits that small minority people living and working in the centres of major cities. From my experience, the really big innovation in rail travel in the last decade has been the adoption of yield-management pricing, which reduces overcrowding and makes rail travel, even first class rail travel, tolerably affordable to people prepared to travel at off-peak times.

    I agree that energy-storage technologies could be important, but many other innovations – for instance robotics – may simply be the kind of high profile low yield ideas which are characteristic of much government-led R&D.

    We are also obsessing about the physical sciences here. Could the next big gains not come from advances in the social sciences? From better understanding of human psychology, and the abandonment of fashionable nonsense (eg the pretence that everyone is born with identical intellectual potential and talent) might pay far higher dividends.

    • Daniel Maris

      I agree with much of what you say. Whilst there is no doubt truth in what you say about “fashionable nonsense” on the other hand we don’t know for sure who will succeed and we know that for a huge swathe of society it’s pretty irrelevant as they receive, gratis of effort, huge inheritances. Who could have predicted that Vivienne Westwood, an apparent no hoper from a Derbyshire council house would go on to generate so much wealth for the British economy?

    • challange

      great enjoyed reading ur views

  • monty61

    This is the guy who came up with the university tuition fees policy, which in a cash-flow crisis isn’t due to go cash-positive for about 15 years?

    Two brains? More like half a brain.

    • telemachus

      At the same time he is trying to limit access in a way that will deny opportunity to our young scientific brains

  • Tom Tom

    R&D Budgets of US firms are peanuts compared to Korean firms. Willetts has not a clue. It is MANUFACTURING that turnms ideas into reality and the response time in Europe is TOO SLOW. Whatever ideas you develop here are best manufactured in Asia

    • Daniel Maris

      Well maybe with the advances in 3D printing we can begin to address those deficiencies.

      • Tom Tom

        Maybe we can simply pretend ?

        • Daniel Maris

          No. Not pretending. 3D printing effectively reproduces the capabilities of a cheap Chinese labour force prepared to work all hours at short notice to produce a prototype.

    • eeore

      Or not given the copyright laws in places like China.

  • perdix

    Apart from the historic bloody minded unions, British businessmen have the reputation that having built a business to a certain size they are content to sell it.

    • Olaf

      That’s so they have enough cash to run away from the punitive tax rates. There is no point in earning lots of money in this country when successive governments obsess about taking it away and pissing it up against a wall.

  • Daniel Maris

    The problem in the past has more often than not been that the government hasn’t followed through.

    Anyway, given Osborne is just a vacuum of leadership at the moment, at least Willetts is trying.

    This is certainly the way to go.

    I agree with Willetts that energy storage technology is a key area we should be backing. It could access a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years. It’s what all big countries want – the ability to store energy at reasonable cost and efficiency. This technology is I think a winner:


    The government has thrown a couple of million at it, whereas we should be using QE to throw hundreds of millions at it.

    Given our need for land and new housing in the south, I think we should also be backing land reclamation.

    Robots and space technology are also key areas I have banged on about before.

    We already have a really big satellite sector (thanks to one Rupert Murdoch apparently – he gave it the initial kick start).

    Willetts is the first minister I have heard talk sense on a subject in a long while (with the partial exception of Michael Gove).

    Well done!

    • Tom Tom

      “Given our need for land and new housing in the south, I think we should
      also be backing land reclamation.” ……………Lebensraum would then require us to reclaim those parts of France lost by Mary Tudor

      • Daniel Maris

        Who wants Calais now?

  • Dogsnob

    “Can science and technology become the backbone of the British economy?”

    No, no, no. Didn’t you take any notice of Mr Lawson all those years ago? We are to be a ‘no-tech’ economy. And people still haul him out and ask him to cast his wisdom to the pigshit masses.