Google chief lambasts the UK for its technophobic 'luvvie' culture

Britain has squandered its great computing heritage, says Schmidt

Ian Burrell,Kevin Rawlinson
Saturday 27 August 2011 00:00 BST
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said he was flabbergasted that computer science was not a standard subject in all British schools
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said he was flabbergasted that computer science was not a standard subject in all British schools (Reuters)

The executive chairman of Google has lambasted Britain as a society that favours "luvvies" over "boffins" and warned that unless it takes action to support science in education and business "the UK will continue to be where inventions are born – but not bred for long-term success".

Painting a bleak picture of Britain's future as a hub of technological innovation, Eric Schmidt said he was "flabbergasted" that computer science was not a standard subject in British schools. "That is just throwing away your great computing heritage," he said.

Mr Schmidt said Britain was "the home of so many media-related inventions", including photography and television. "You invented computers in both concept and practice," he added. "Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK."

He said Britain had a fundamental problem in supporting innovative businesses. "The UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries. But there's little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they're then left to wither or get transplanted overseas."

Giving the prestigious annual James MacTaggart Lecture to an audience of media executives in Edinburgh, Mr Schmidt warned: "If you don't address this, then the UK will continue to be where inventions are born - but not bred for long-term success."

The head of one of the world's biggest technology companies said Britain needed to look back to its Victorian age when it held the sciences and the arts in equally high esteem. "You need to bring art and science back together," he said. "Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairytales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford."

Mr Schmidt has previously criticised Britain as a base for innovation; in May he responded to David Cameron, who said in March that "the founders of Google have said they could never have started their company in Britain". Mr Schmidt claimed not to be aware of the quote, but told the BBC: "You need to be able to get enough steam behind you before you get injuncted out of existence [in Britain]."

In the past 100 years, the UK "has stopped nurturing its polymaths", he said. "There's been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren't championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other. To use what I'm told is the vernacular, you're either a 'luvvy' or a 'boffin'."

Having referred to Carroll and the physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was also a published poet, Mr Schmidt then picked on one of contemporary Britain's favourite business innovators, Lord Sugar, comparing the Amstrad founder's attitude towards engineering to that of Barack Obama, who recently promised to train 10,000 more engineers a year. "Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don't think we've done too badly," Mr Schmidt said. "Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels."

Responding to Mr Schmidt's criticism, a source in the Department for Education admitted there have been "serious problems with science policy reaching back many decades", but pointed out that the Government is "greatly increasing bursaries to the top maths and physics students who want to become teachers".

The source added: "We have prioritised maths and science in departmental spending. We are encouraging more children to do science GCSEs and we have made maths and science the top priorities in teacher training."

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rejected the suggestion that the Government wasn't doing enough to promote innovation, insisting it was "committed to giving businesses the incentives to invest in ideas to drive economic growth". He added: "We are introducing measures to give companies a reduced rate of tax on profits arising from patents. We are also increasing the amount of support for small and medium-sized businesses."

A vision for the future of television

*Google TV, an online television platform that will enable viewers to surf the internet while watching programmes, will be launched in the UK early next year, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt has announced.

Google's arrival into the market is likely to be in advance of the delayed YouView internet television project, which is supported by British broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and is aimed at Freeview customers.

YouView was expected to appear this year but the launch has been put back until "early 2012". BSkyB and Virgin Media already offer some television services over broadband internet.

Google TV launched nearly a year ago in the United States, where its broadcast partners include HBO. It is seen as a more open service than YouView and will take advantage of Google's expertise to offer users the opportunity to comb the internet for content and access it instantly.

But Google TV has failed to bring on board the American broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC, which have blocked their websites from the service. The UK launch, though expected, will alarm those British broadcasters who have long feared Google's domination of their sector.

Last night, Mr Schmidt sought to allay those concerns by saying Google had no ambition to compete with programme makers.

"Actually our intent is the opposite," he said. "We seek to support the content industry by providing an open platform for the next generation of TV."

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