I'm catching up on the OECD's Knowledge-Based Capital conference earlier this month (click here for the conference website including a link to the video of sessions). (Side note: this conference is part of the project that was kicked off at the conference on New Building Blocks for Economic Growth which Athena Alliance organized in 2011 - see our conference report, my conference observation paper, my "take-away" presentation and links to other documents including videos of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's keynote address and the opening panel).
At the opening session, David Willetts, the UK Minister for Universities and Science spoke about the role of government. While he talked about the need to reduce regulations and making sure government doesn't get in the way as befits a Conservative Party MP, he also argued for a positive role. In addition to funding support for R&D he mentioned was looking at the U.S. SBIR program, DARPA, use of procurement to promote specific technologies and the use of prizes.
But his focus was on helping technologies, not companies. In a paper published in January, Willetts outlined Eight Great Technologies that the UK should promote:
• big data
• robots and other autonomous systems.
• synthetic biology.
• regenerative medicine
• agricultural technologies
• advanced materials
• energy storage.
These are not a random list of technologies but an interconnected set with one leading to the other. Satellites feed into "big data" which helps drive autonomous systems. Synthetic biology is the parallel to IT and is closely tied to regenerative medicine and agricultural technologies. Advanced materials is parallel to synthetic biology and energy storage is an application of advanced materials.
I do find the grouping a little strange in its mix of broad areas and specific applications (e.g. advanced materials and energy storage; big data and satellites/robots; synthetic biology and regenerative medicine/agriculture). An unstated strategy here appears to be to find a big area of research, explain why the UK can play in this area and then look for some application areas where the UK might have a competitive/commercial advantage.
It is interesting that Willetts includes a short set of scenarios that highlight different paths development of the technology could take. In the False Dawn, the technology never develops to commercial scale. Transmutation means it goes off in a different direction. Under Gone abroad the technology takes off elsewhere. It's here but it isn't ours means that there are companies in the UK reaping the benefits of commercialization but they aren't UK owned companies. The more successful scenario is We have grown big new companies ala Rolls Royce and Vodafone where the UK is home to more top 500 companies. The final scenario is We are purveyors of R&D to the world where the UK is the world's R&D lab.
It is also interesting to note that Willetts seems to be getting some push back from other conservatives. For example, a piece in The Spectator ("David Willetts looks back to the future for economic growth") accused him of trying to revive failed policies of the past of picking winners and losers. Willett argues that the policy is one of picking general purpose technologies, not specific companies as in the past. There is even an explicit comparison to "Ronald Reagan's Small Business Research Initiative." But to these critics, the difference between picking companies and picking technologies is irrelevant.
We will have to see how this new technology strategy plays out politically in the UK. In any event, the technology list is interesting in and of itself.
By the way, the U.S. has been doing similar studies. One example that ties together many of the same technologies (IT, synthetic biology and materials) is the STPI Emerging Global Trends in Advanced Manufacturing report (see earlier posting for a summary).