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October 10, 2007

Can Britain take the pace in the global talent race?

The lasting impact of David Sainsbury’s report, The Race to the Top: A review of government’s science and innovation policies, published last week, will depend critically on three things. Is the picture of the UK’s economy right? Because if it isn’t then the solutions won’t match future needs. Is the picture of global knowledge constraints right? Because if it isn’t we will be out of sync with action elsewhere. And, are the disparate parts of government going to respond in a constructive and supportive way? Because many of the outcomes depend on those disparate parts getting their collaborative act together.

Many people believe that the UK has a history of great invention but poor application—a deficit in knowledge transfer. Sainsbury says that “in a number of critical areas we are doing better than is commonly thought” and “there has been a dramatic increase in KT from British universities”. That’s good. Creaky, oak-panelled mechanisms are getting slicker.

But, outside, we have a global war for talent, identified by studies such as the US National Academies’ report in 2005, Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future.  Stars are rising in the East. Other countries see the risks of a dearth of competent science-literate professionals. And some of the responses are massive. The US Competitiveness Initiative commits $5.9 billion (£2.9bn) in 2007 to increase research investments, encourage entrepreneurship and build school education. The total budget request for R&D in the US this year is $137bn, more than 50 per cent up on 2001. Compare that with what’s on offer in the UK.

The focus across the globe is partly about knowledge creation but mostly about its use. KT mechanisms are important but you can source knowledge all over the place. Bright and able people are the best way of transferring and exploiting knowledge. The single most important constraint is the supply of those people.

Back home, Sainsbury notes two cross-cutting performance issues: the different requirements of manufacturing and services; and the role of HEIs in supporting a diversity of excellence. The UK economy is low on manufacturing, which is a mismatch with our research strengths in sciences. We are much stronger in the knowledge-based industries, including services and financials, which appear to be light on R&D. What this means is that measures that address traditional research throughput to manufacturing are only partially effective across the value base of the economy. What would most benefit the KBIs is, wait for it, a strong supply of bright and able people. That puts us smack centre in the global talent war.

The review also addresses that third question, the weaknesses that lead the disparate parts of government to go their own way with little sharing and coordination. Whitehall has not been a learning organisation when it comes to KT. But the proposed simplification and strengthening of structures and processes will concentrate resources and make life easier for entrepreneurs.

So why is it difficult to feel enthusiastic? It’s because these ideas are a bit mechanistic. Sure, we need the right structures and processes, not least because the wrong ones are barriers that drag innovation down. But the right ones work only when there are people to work them.

For me, the most important section is Chapter 7: Educating a new generation of young scientists and engineers. This chapter is about the supply of people trained in science and engineering. It is about better incentives, training and support for school teachers to increase the supply of talented young people to higher education. That is the most important thing. It is no good providing advice about future careers to people disaffected by the present. We need more, better teachers working in enriched facilities with a decent, stimulating curriculum freed from the dead hand of 20th century science.

People will win the race to the top, not organisations. The rest of the review is about clearing the track; Chapter 7 is about putting the athletes in place. Sainsbury sees what needs to be done to match other countries, I believe. If government departments respond, and manage their infrastructure, then a significant boost to the UK’s innovation strengths is possible—so long as we allow the next generation of innovators a good run-up. People who entered secondary school in September will do their GCSEs in 2012. It takes time to get a change in the supply of talent—and the sooner that the government acts on Sainsbury the better.

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