George Freeman: Coalition must play to our great strengths
Sunday 24 October 2010
The Government's plans are based on above-trend economic growth.
But if this growth is to be achieved it needs to focus on this country's great strengths, such as its expertise in high-growth industries such as biomedicine, "cleantech" and agricultural science, leveraging off historic alliances with countries such as India.
The coalition government has taken some steps in the Comprehensive Spending Review by investing in science, infrastructure and skills, but now we need to think about a coherent programme for growth, particularly in the regions. For example, the east of England has the potential to be the next Silicon Valley of these sustainable technologies. We have the research base, industrial innovation and finance to lead in the world's three fastest growing markets: agriculture, renewable energy and biomedicine. The A11 corridor links Cambridge University and Europe's leading biotechnology and digital cluster with Norwich's global leadership in environmental, food and crop science and a cluster of precision engineering and renewable energy expertise. Add the Ipswich telecoms cluster around BT at Martlesham, and the offshore gas, wind and wave power, and you have a golden triangle of technology which could power new jobs and businesses for years to come.
But there is much to do to unlock growth in these areas: basic science is needed – whether through universities or companies – for us to have the groundbreaking discoveries that will lead to future products and innovative companies. This requires longevity of funding as well as volume of funding – and an acceptance that some ideas will simply not work. It's also important to give long-term job security to attract and keep the best researchers from around the world, so we must be careful about immigration controls.
And we must have good-quality applied research. We are not as good as many other countries at translating our scientific prowess into successful companies, or in keeping our existing companies at the forefront of innovation. We should be prepared to focus the funding that is available in institutions that have the track record and potential to commercialise research in the harsh reality of the industrial food chain. These may be the lighthouse-style Clerk Maxwell Centres advocated by Hermann Hauser, or the SME-focused Fraunhofer model so successful in Germany. Such institutes would ensure that great research was made available to UK companies to use.
We also need people with the right set of skills to develop these areas and our own scientific entrepreneurs, with enough freedom to start new companies and ideas. We need to support them when they start, and support them when they fail, as so many will. And we need skilled technicians too, able to perform the detailed work that will be required in these companies. This will require whole-scale improvements to our apprenticeship and vocational programmes. And an end to the stale "arts vs science" divide in sixth form and university which has held back British attitudes to science and innovation.
To build real clusters we must make sure that people can find affordable homes to live in, sustainable transport to travel in and education fit for their families. Our most talented people are also the most internationally mobile.
And, crucially, we need to promote popular trust in science through political leadership, and a stronger recognition in Parliament on the positive potential of science and scientists to tackle some of the most acute problems we face, but also of the need for public trust in a sensible and evidence-based regulatory framework.
Ultimately, we need a culture in this country that accepts and supports science and engineering, and understands their methods and their values. Our education system should leave students mathematically and scientifically literate, so they know something about scientific methods, and can understand concepts such as uncertainty and risk.
We see these ideas and approaches as critical to the success of this coalition government. As coalition-MP allies with very different but complementary interests (one Conservative, one Lib Dem; one rural, one urban; one scientist, one entrepreneur), we hope that our coalition helps the national coalition to deliver what this country so desperately needs.
George Freeman MP with Dr Julian Huppert MP
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