Margareta Pagano: Britain has lost its edge, and it will take genuine changes to get it back

Not a single British company was in the top 100 list of best global innovators

Margareta Pagano
Sunday 03 November 2013 01:00 GMT

Thomson Reuters recently published the results of its annual beauty parade of the Top 100 Global Innovators companies. As you might expect, the Americans walked off with most of the prizes, with 46 companies making the top 100 including 3M and Apple. In second place was Asia with 32 companies, 28 of which were from Japan, three from South Korea and one from Taiwan – no Chinese though – followed by the Europeans with 22 companies represented. Leading the Europeans were the French, taking 12 positions along with Swiss, Swedish and German companies.

For the second year running, there was not one single British company in the 100. It's not much consolation, but we can take a little solace from the fact that 3M – which has come up trumps for the last three years –was then headed up by a British engineer, Sir George Buckley. But it's not enough. As the country that led the industrial revolution and likes to think it still leads the world in the creative and digital industries, the absence of a British company is embarrassing, if not tragic.

The analysts at Thomson Reuters, which measured the companies by a series of proprietary patent-related metrics as well as how much they push new technologies, blame the lack of business investment and R&D for Britain's poor showing; UK companies invest about half of what their French peers spend on R&D and the amount being invested today is still some 20 per cent below its pre-crash level. What's so interesting about this survey is that it shows how strong the relationship is between inventiveness and spend: most of the top US companies which outperformed the S&P 500 also out-spent their rivals on R&D by nearly 9 per cent. The top 100 spent 5 per cent of revenue on R&D, whereas the average spent 2 per cent. Something is working.

So what's gone wrong here? Why don't UK companies spend more on investment, particularly now that most of them have huge piles of cash, and why aren't there more world-class engineering companies to match those in the US or at least France? It's too easy to hark back to the tired narrative that puts blames on the Thatcher and Blair governments for giving up on manufacturing while glorifying our financial and service sectors. While government policy over the last three decades is partly to blame, there's more at stake than this; it's about attitudes. And those attitudes can be traced to the way the study of the humanities rather than science is still seen by the political elite, and the educational system which provides for it, as the ladder to power; take a look at the make-up of MPs and the Cabinet if you have any doubts.

The coalition is doing its best to change this psychology and credit for this should go to Vince Cable (pictured), the Business Secretary, and David Willetts, the Universities ministers, both of whom have been relentless in their drive to get science, engineering, manufacturing and apprenticeships, at the heart of industrial policy. They are at it again this week with another campaign together with the Royal Academy of Engineering – Tomorrow's Engineers Week –which seeks to encourage and promote engineering as a career option for the young. Appropriately, it will be launched at Facebook's Convent Garden HQ with ministers in tow. Alongside the campaign is a report by Professor John Perkins who has been looking at how government and schools can get more young people – particularly women – into engineering. He comes up with ideas like greater partnerships between schools, universities and the science and business community. While the professor's suggestions are hugely commendable, it's going to take a generation to get such changes through and unless there are big changes in the attitudes in the attitudes of school teachers, there's a danger that they will only pay lip-service to his reforms.

What's needed is a much quicker fix; one which will inspire the next generation of youngsters into considering engineer-

ing as a career but also one which prompts current business leaders to spend and invest more in the future. Building on the Olympics, the government should look at hosting a new Festival of Britain, itself modelled on the Great Exhibition of 1851 which acted as such a fantastic show-case for the UK's industrial revolution. As the French would say, sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards.

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