Science: The need to build new partnerships

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A KIND of glee spread among industrialists last summer when William Waldegrave appeared to be asking how best to shake up the nation's scientific laboratories and ensure that Britain earned money from its inventions and discoveries.

Now his White Paper on Science and Technology is expected merely to ponder how best to manage innovation, and the Government's role in this. But it is also expected to advocate wider use of a technique known as 'research foresight'. This brings scientists together to reach a consensus on areas of their work most likely to benefit British companies. Some academics balk at the idea, but others say the process is useful since it forces scientists to define their motives.

Research foresight sounds a bit like 'picking winners', which would be anathema to any Conservative government. Mr Waldegrave, Minister for Public Service and Science, insists that it only provides industry with some of the help it needs to identify research worth exploiting.

Many question, however, whether research foresight on its own will be enough to ensure that key technologies reach industrial users. Bob Whelan, chief executive of the Centre for Exploitation of Science and Technology, argues that Britain's problem in using science to ensure economic growth lies not in its choice of the research it funds, but in failing to ensure that companies grasp their opportunities and grasp them early on.

'This concept - that if you get science right, everything else will come right - is deeply embedded in our culture, and easy to mouth,' says Dr Whelan, whose centre, funded by industry, was set up by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 to create links among companies, higher education and government. Britain's industry must get 'tuned into technology', he says, rather than endlessly searching for gems of ideas that politicians think lie buried in our universities.

Such a change of focus requires a commitment from government that Dr Whelan expects will be the dominant tone of Mr Waldegrave's White Paper. Most importantly, he also expects political support for an approach his centre suggested in June 1991.

In a report about how Germany had achieved a manufacturing strength that historically has eluded Britain, the centre asked more than 50 German companies to pick the most productive means of exploiting science and technology. It found that a pivotal role in Germany's success was played by part government-funded and part privately funded organisations.

The Fraunhofer Society and Max Planck Institute are examples. Such bodies help small firms to find the technologies they need, but are not driven entirely by commercial forces; they are half-way houses in which the traditional boundaries between industry and academia are blurred.

Britain has had no equivalent organisations. The idea that we needed a series of 'Faraday Centres' gained currency - five pilot partnerships have been set up - and some of Britain's biggest companies have signalled their willingness to become involved.

The aim is to create facilities where people from academia and industry can carry out industrially relevant research in a genuinely commercial environment. They would be awarded higher degrees, but would have to work to strict timetables and budgets. 'What we would aim to do is to build up academically recognised industrial technologists,' Dr Whelan says.

The hope was that the White Paper would contain a firm promise to establish more such centres, but it is expected to go no further than applaud the principle.

The main reason for Mr Waldegrave's hesitancy appears to be his wish to avoid creating just another tier of bureaucracy. He is also short of new money. It has been suggested that the centres could become part of regional development policy, but that might be the kiss of death, because the regions are traditionally starved of cash.

'We are talking about a real cultural change here and that takes time,' Dr Whelan says. 'If the White Paper endorses the principles of the Faraday Centres, I will be well pleased. The idea has already encouraged people to say, 'We can do that ourselves', with or without help from government. This alone is a real step forward.'

Leading industrialists, acquainted with government and its processes, will know that policy changes grind exceeding slow and will welcome the fresh messages in the White Paper. But those from smaller companies will have been expecting more.

Mr Waldegrave's team still has battles to win, not least with the Department of Trade and Industry, which traditionally has led government efforts to encourage industrial innovation. Now he must persuade other government departments of the value of his 'wealth creation'


(Photograph omitted)