James Baker, CEO of Graphene@Manchester, reflects upon how a change in the UK’s approach to research and innovation, particularly when it comes to advanced materials, could support the economy to get back on its feet in the wake of COVID-19.
In recent weeks, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has gone from relative obscurity to a national leader who is pledging billions of pounds in taxpayers’ money to help save British businesses and their employees who would otherwise be facing ruin in the COVID-19 crisis.
This bold move by UK government to protect businesses is, of course, a much welcome lifeline but as we look ahead, we need to do more than mothball our economy – we need to rebuild and somehow deliver growth and prosperity once more; and quickly.
Just before the devastating coronavirus pandemic hit the UK in March this year, you may recall the newly appointed Chancellor announcing the 2020 Spring budget to a packed House of Commons. Within his debut budget, Sunak included a spending announcement for a new UK advanced research agency which could revolutionise the UK’s approach to innovation.
A post-COVID-19 world will certainly present huge challenges – but also, it’s a rare opportunity to do things differently and a radical approach to innovation will, I believe, be critical. As such, I recommend:
- with the global economy facing unprecedented disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that the UK government remains committed to doing something different and be much more agile in its approach to rebuilding its economy;
- our research and innovation community responds to this call and decides to take this unique opportunity to help UK businesses get back on track;
- we look to implement a new advanced research agency for the UK to drive ‘blue sky’ thinking without fear of taking risks, and achieve this through the ‘devolution of innovation’ by establishing a network of likeminded regional universities who empower parts of their research communities to pursue more farsighted projects without fear of failure;
- we recognise that this philosophy to innovation has real merit – ie if an R&D project fails, then learn from your mistakes – but quickly. Like a game of snakes and ladders, we can go back up the Technology Readiness Level (TRLs) in our ‘science supply chain’ to locate and fix any glitches.
The recent budget announcement for the UK to drive ‘blue sky’ thinking without fear of taking risks is an approach that is already part of The University of Manchester’s own pioneering innovation model.
Millions were to be set aside in the 2020 Budget to create Britain’s civilian answer to the USA’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
DARPA has been a hugely successful innovation catalyst and is credited for developing breakthroughs in robotics, for creating an early version of the internet, and delivering GPS and stealth technologies.
I believe this philosophy to innovation has real merit and I would like to see this more widely adopted by the UK government in relation to research. In fact, I would recommended that the UK government looks at the model of ‘learn fast, fail fast’ which we have pioneered here in Manchester.
The Manchester model
What is our Manchester model of innovation? Well, I have brought the ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ philosophy to the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre (GEIC), the £60 million graphene commercialisation facility based at The University of Manchester.
I have written about this in previous Policy@Manchester blog posts but essentially, while designing the GEIC’s business operating model, we took inspiration from a number of sources – including America’s DARPA, the UK’s Catapults programme and the German Fraunhofer network – to create a unique but effective innovation catalyst.
The GEIC is now working to commercialise graphene and other disruptive 2D materials and we are looking to accelerate lab-to-market applications in advanced materials.
I believe our approach in Manchester is setting us apart. Up until now, the UK innovation strategy has tried to pick potential winners and then construct large and heavily funded ‘too big to fail’ research projects to deliver on expectation.
The fail fast approach
Alternatively, we could run a series of relatively low cost pilots in places like the GEIC. If a project fails, then learn from your mistakes. This approach has helped the US drive incredible advances in post-war innovation and bringing new, game-changing technologies to the world.
The crucial thing to remember is that this is a private-public sector approach, a symbiotic relationship that underpins a successful entrepreneurial nation and with continued support from government through initiatives like those announced in the Budget.
‘Devolution of innovation’: the UK version of DARPA
In the early 1960s, DARPA’s civilian predecessor, ARPA, gave money to some of America’s own world-leading universities, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berkeley (University of California) and Stanford. I would suggest that the British government does something similar and cuts the bureaucracy and red tape across the UK’s higher education sector to empower academics to embark on more visionary work.
Reported in The Economist magazine earlier this year, my colleague Richard Jones, Chair in Materials Physics and Innovation Policy at Manchester, says this more liberal innovation model could work hand-in-glove with the government’s own ‘levelling up’ agenda. This agenda aims to support deprived parts of the country by building research capacity in places away from the prosperous south-east.
I would say the GEIC at The University of Manchester is an example of that devolution of innovation. We are supporting our own graphene-based ecosystem which we call Graphene City and I see no reason why other northern or midlands city-regions cannot support their own unique innovation theme led by a local research university – and together, as a likeminded network, we form a UK version of DARPA.