In what sense an innovation problem?

Dr Peter O’Brien, Executive Director, Yorkshire Universities

Yesterday I attended the annual conference of the Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network (AHSN), in Leeds, entitled, ‘Transforming Lives Through Innovation’. The previous day I was at the White Rose Consortium’s Industrial Strategy ‘Working in Partnership’ final conference, which showcased the contribution of the social sciences to meeting industrial strategy opportunities and challenges. The timing of the two conferences came a matter of hours after the first of four speeches by the Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, setting out how the Government intends to achieve its ‘2.4% R&D/innovation investment’ target by 2027. For those not familiar with this measure, the UK spends significantly less on research and development (R&D) and innovation than its international competitors. The intention is to raise total investment to 2.4% of GDP up from 1.6%, which, in nominal terms, means raising spending from £34 billion to £70 billion. The split between public and private investment is approximately one-third and two-thirds, respectively.

Aside from the macro-economic metrics, there are also important questions relating to the geography of R&D and innovation investment in the UK, and the extent to which regions, such as Yorkshire, are able to draw upon a range of existing and emerging assets and a broader supportive environment to drive increased innovation across different sectors for the purposes of improving firm and organisational productivity, generating more quality jobs and improving individual and societal well-being. I have written on a number of occasions that our diverse range of universities in Yorkshire form a crucial element of the place-sensitive innovation eco-system in the region.

This week’s events illustrated the importance of two particular ingredients that are central to the R&D and innovation agenda – in addition to the need for place-sensitivity within national investment. First, is the ‘people dimension’ and the extent to which the purposes of undertaking research and striving for new forms of innovation are pivotal to addressing some of the practical issues faced each day by people in Yorkshire, and is vital in communicating to local communities the value of innovation. The AHSN provided a platform to highlight some fantastic ideas and new products and processes designed to improve patient care and address the systemic issues of ill-health. The people perspective was evident by the sheer exuberance and talent on display, and demonstrated how critical it is to continually develop a highly-skilled pipeline of talent and expertise in the region and beyond. This theme was picked up on Tuesday in a speech by the Universities Ministers in which he set out the case as to why additional investment was needed to support the development of an extra 270,000 researchers by 2027, coming through in both academic and non-academic career routes. Innovation and skills development being brought together in unison. Second, is the value that can be accrued by encouraging more inter and cross-disciplinary research, drawing upon the best of the physical, medical and social sciences and theoretical and applied research. The growing complexity of the societal, economic, technological and environmental changes and challenges we face requires the formulation and cross-fertilisation of ideas within and across different disciplines and institutions, each bringing different insights and skill sets to bear. Undoubtedly, this is not easy, but the opportunity cost of failing to adopt such approaches runs the risk of not generating the long-term broader benefits that the planned additional investment in R&D and innovation is intended to generate.

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