This article was first published in Research Professional. Read the original article here.

The UK government’s long-awaited Innovation Strategy, published last week, sets out a pledge to create the world’s best innovation ecosystem as a central pillar of its plan to Build Back Better following the pandemic.

This is not an easy task. Innovation is a complex process with often unknown and uncertain returns. The innovation system has a huge number of moving parts—interacting and interdependent people, collaborations and organisations. Developing or embedding something new in the economy is rarely a linear process.

However, as the UK emerges from the pandemic and the government prepares to set out ambitious plans to decarbonise the economy, innovation becomes critical to success.

Driving change will mean supporting businesses across the UK to see the value of R&D, and to translate discoveries into the commercial solutions to meet the big challenges of our age.

Follow the map

Knowledge is an essential ingredient of innovation. This is why it is vital not to forget the R&D Roadmap, which was published back in July 2020.

The Innovation Strategy rightly focuses on how to support and encourage business innovation, but success here will be underpinned by the UK’s research base. It is therefore essential that the Innovation Strategy does not supersede the actions and priorities of the R&D Roadmap.

As we move from strategising to delivery, the two documents must sit side by side and speak to one another. Their success is intertwined, and their delivery should be inseparable.

Alarm bells

To create a world-leading innovation system, the UK must invest. The Innovation Strategy sets high aspirations, ranging from making regulation more innovation-friendly, to identifying seven strategic technologies, to funding research, offering incentives and boosting access to finance. These must be matched with equally ambitious spending and policy commitments in the upcoming spending review.

The UK has long underinvested in research. Had we invested at the OECD average for the last 10 years, research, development and innovation would have benefited from an additional £44 billion.

The government is planning to rectify this, setting a target to double the UK’s total R&D spend by 2027. To achieve this, public funding for research will need to increase to £22bn over the next four years.

However, Greg Clark, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, has noted that, while the Innovation Strategy commits to £22bn in public research funding, it has dropped a previous pledge that this would be achieved by 2024-25.

This has set alarm bells ringing, with many worrying that increases in public funding for research will be delayed.

Crowding in

Putting off progress towards the £22bn target will do much less to leverage private investment than steady, secure funding commitments. And it will make it much harder to add the £17bn to annual business R&D spending necessary to achieving the government’s target of raising R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.

For many businesses, public funding for research and incentives for private R&D are critical to make high-risk innovation worthwhile. Public funding encourages private spending by supporting the foundations of the research and innovation system, while also giving businesses confidence and certainty.

As the government calls on businesses to scale up investment in research and innovation, then, it must do the same.

Making connections

How money is allocated also matters. There is a need to better understand what types of funding initiatives do most to support business innovation and leverage private sector investment in R&D.

The National Centre for Universities and Business’s 2020 R&D Taskforce showed that many factors shape business R&D investment decisions—from the availability of skills, datasets, buildings and laboratories, to regulation, tax and funding.

Developing and adopting innovation often requires bringing people and ideas together, and the delivery of the Innovation Strategy must consider the importance of such connectivity. It was therefore important that the strategy was accompanied by an announcement of follow-up funding for the Connecting Capability Fund, which encourages collaborations between universities and businesses.

Creating an environment in which innovation can flourish requires collaboration between government, businesses, universities and others. The Innovation Strategy shows that the government realises it has a greater role to play in the innovation system.

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