Innovation: The engine of progress

Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central and Shadow Minister for Innovation & Science speaking at the Annual Conference of the Professors & Heads of Electrical Engineering stated:

“Standing still is not an option. If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future. We need to be more commercially ambitious.

“ The theme of today’s conference is “Engineering Education in a Challenging Economic Environment”.  There are great similarities with the last ‘Challenging Economic Environment’ back in the early eighties, when I applied to study engineering at University – recession, rising unemployment, a royal wedding and an under-valuation of the role of engineering in the economy.

“ But I am concerned at the messages going out to school students now as funding and support are cut.

“ It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the profession shout out loud and clear how important engineering is to our country’s future; particularly to creating the quality jobs of the future and securing a sustainable recovery.

Chi highlighted that the innovation that she is concerned with is the engine of progress:

“The process by which ideas are developed, improved, extended, and then integrated into our society so that our lives improve. The human race has progressed through innovation. From sharpened stones to mobile phones we have innovated to survive, live longer, andlive better.

“ Properly regulated industry in a fair society, innovation should be the engine of progress for all. We need new industries if we are to have a balanced economy; one which is resilient to future crises. The financial crisis showed us the consequences of putting too many economic eggs in one basket.

Ms Onwurah believes that the government’s role to create and maintain the environment in which the innovation system can flourish:

“ I think the answer is around four main themes – a competition environment, infrastructure, skills and finance.

“Government should be active in ensuring  a level playing field. For  example, agreeing standards in audio visual encoding, developing a supply chain for wind power or rolling out the next generation broadband.

“Government has a role in bringing industry together. Early stage enterprises need access to business support and knowledge networks which facilitate innovation, such as the North East Process Industry Cluster. They encourage the cross over of ideas between academic institutes and industry.

“ Sadly Government is abolishing with some relish, invested £440m annually in strategic science and innovation . So the £200m over 4 years on Technology Innovation Centres is not going to make up for what is lost.

“Government has a role is in infrastructure.  Small companies developing new markets may not have the time or resources to put in place vital infrastructure: a test bed for wind turbines for example, or the massive steel press that the new power industry needs.

“ Government has a role in education and therefore helping put in place the skills we need.  We need to ensure we provide the skills we need for the future as well as addressing any current shortfalls.We need more engineers and technologists, scientists and entrepreneurs.  We need great engineering education if we are to continue to be world class in the face of increasing competition.

She also stressed the need for direct government funding of R&D as an important part of ensuring the innovation system flourishes:

“ We spend less than other countries who do not have our science reputation.   But government can also do more.  Through tax incentives such as the R&D tax credit and the patent box which reduces taxation on revenues from new patents. Public procurement is also a way to help drive innovation. The US dedicates 7% of its public procurement to small businesses to encourage innovation.

But Chi is optimistic:

“ Our modern manufacturing base is sustainably productive, moving forward, exporting and important for our future. It is healthy and a fine platform for growth.  We can grow further  in more high tech manufacturing – intensive in Intellectual Property and knowledge and low in its consumption of resources – be that energy or materials.  From a global competition perspective, we are at the front of the field –  we only need to raise our game to move ahead.  Modern Manufacturing is vital to the UK’s economic future.

“ All areas of the economy, manufacturing and services, need to invest in innovation.

We have quite a bit in place already.  We have great institutions of learning and knowledge.  We have world leading technology. We have a culture which encourages enquiring minds. We have the world’s leading financial centre with good access to capital.  We have strong and enduring trade relationships. We have a strong domestic market. Our people are open to change and embrace progress.  We have an increasingly educated population.

If government and industry can work together to invest in innovation I see a strong future.

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