Nothing demonstrates the need for big research ideas, big answers to big questions, quite like a global crisis. The machinery of government, however, organised by separate divisions of interest – business in one corner, science and technology in another, social affairs somewhere else – means that big, multi-disciplinary ideas have nowhere to go.
Government departments are vertical silos and their focused knowledge on particular areas and agendas is always going to be the basis for risk-averse decision-making. In this system only the limited, piecemeal research projects appear to make sense, become able to access funding and have a chance to prove their viability. More ambitious, high-risk but high-potential projects, look even more remote from common sense, part of the “blue sky”.
My own area of defence and security is a good example of how problems are fundamentally interconnected – security depends on infrastructure and supply chains, water, food, jobs etc – but research funding continues to come in small clusters, limited by notions of what “security” means, and without an overarching cohesion of purpose and direction. Projects that involve wider perspectives and collaboration across humanities and social sciences are more likely to be overlooked.
There’s also the issue of the language used. Terms like “science and technology”, “R&D” and “innovation”. All of them are used synonymously by both government and industry as a bucket of labels relating to the good stuff that brings investment, new enterprise activity and revenues to UK plc. In reality each of the terms means something very different. Science and technology are the outcome, the product; R&D is the work done, the conversion of money into knowledge; innovation is conversion of knowledge into money.
Mixing up the links in the chain means less clarity about the purpose of research, and about what’s actually needed to turn all the potential contained within our universities and research teams into R&D that results in big answers for societies. That might be novel forms of healthcare, alternative propulsive technology for aircraft or quantum IT.
The Dowling Review of business-university research collaboration in 2015 backs up the argument that the machinery is too complex, too fragmented. SMEs and micro-businesses aren’t able to navigate their way through the system – to see the benefits to themselves and the wider world – which means cutting off the largest and most diverse source of enterprise activity.
Even when useful projects are given backing, the machinery of government procurement is slow and built around inflexible systems of accountability. Success and failure is judged quickly and in black and white terms – all working against risk-taking and the eventual innovation outputs.
Dominic Cummings has suggested something like an Advanced Research Projects Agency, taking bigger bets on emerging technology rather than processes that split funds x number of ways into smaller and smaller projects. But an agency of this kind wouldn’t work in the current departmental infrastructure.
A different machinery is needed, not tweaking but brave, deep cuts, and a research funding approach without all the separate, overly intricate, easily disrupted moving parts. There needs to be bold leadership and decision-making, draconian if necessary, in order to get funding targeted to high-potential, multi-disciplinary work with obvious, radical benefits for the nation. Because the current system, in trying to be fair to everyone, just means there are disadvantages for everyone trying to contribute – and worst of all, a diminishing rate of return from taxpayers’ money.
A clear overview and signposting through the science and technology innovation system is needed for everyone involved: an agreed definition of what “innovation” means in terms of the process and outcomes, and how they can best be delivered; the routes to investment available for developing science and technology, and the opportunities for government and private sector collaboration. There also needs to be more common ground and sharing of what the priorities are for science and technology, the associated roadmaps for delivering change; and sharing of insights into the context, in terms of technologies and markets, access to data and facilities that will accelerate development and testing. Regular communications and a two-way dialogue between government, industry and higher education on the ecosystem for innovation would go a long way in ensuring real understanding and appreciation of the changing landscape of needs.
Dr Simon Harwood is director of defence and security at Cranfield University