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Policy lunchbox: the challenges facing the industrial strategy

Posted by on March 31, 2017

By Gabriele Butkute, science policy officer at the Royal Society of Biology and the Biochemical Society

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have released an open consultation on ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ which is currently a hot topic among our Member Organisations and the whole of the bioscience community. As such, we were thrilled to host a Policy Lunchbox seminar on this topic with Thomas Gelderd, assistant director at BEIS.

Thomas spoke to us about the development of some early actions laid out in the Green Paper on ‘Building our Industrial Strategy,’ on which the open consultation questions are based, and about the potential next steps in how the strategy may develop over the coming months.

There is no single definition of an industrial strategy; in fact, there are over 30 academic interpretations of what an industrial strategy actually is. The high number of industrial strategies launched by successive UK Governments over the last few decades has received some criticism, and in recent decades it seems to have become a rather controversial term. To close the gap between the UK’s best performing companies, industries, places and people, and those that are currently less productive- in order make the UK one of the most competitive places in the world to start or to grow a business- will arguably take a much longer time than the average lifetime of a political party in power.

Thomas made clear that this industrial strategy is looking to stimulate growth across the country by building on existing strengths to deliver a highly-skilled and competitive economy that works for everybody. The proposal is based on 10 pillars, with ‘Investing in science, research and innovation’ and ‘Developing skills’ being two which are clearly of relevance to the science community.

Whilst the UK is evidently in a position of strength to develop such an industrial strategy (we are the 5th biggest economy globally), we need to acknowledge the challenges we face, now and in the years ahead. Productivity is a central focus, and for good reason; according to a House of Commons Library briefing, productively in the UK has stagnated since the financial crisis in 2008.

GDP growth can be strengthened by increasing the working population, or increasing the productivity of the current working population. However, since there are currently more people retiring than entering the workforce in the UK, the working population is not expected to increase, leaving increasing productivity as our only way to encourage GDP growth and improve living standards. To make it an even more pressing issue, the UK doesn’t compete well internationally regarding productivity, and there is a well-known disparity in productivity and economic output between the South East and the North of England.

To tackle these long standing structural issues, Thomas explained that this industrial strategy will seek to address skills gaps and improve investment in infrastructure, research and development (R&D), innovation and commercialisation. Thomas and his colleagues at BEIS are keen to hear from the scientific community, through avenues such as the open consultation, on how to effectively address these issues.

During the seminar, it was useful to hear from Thomas about the consultation, its aims and how best to feed into it. Equally, it was interesting and reassuring to discuss the measures Government is already taking to invest in science, research and innovation; fields in which the UK is already highly competitive internationally. A clear highlight is a further £4.7billion by 2021 in R&D investment, announced in November 2016, which will give roots to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund; and initiatives to increase the number of highly skilled researchers, such the establishment of 1,000 new PhD places and fellowships.

The White Paper for this strategy is likely to be published towards the end of the year and will cover actions under the 10 pillars in greater detail, in addition to other areas that weren’t discussed at great length in the Green Paper, such as our ageing population, automation trends, regulation, competition, and labour markets.

There was a lot of expertise and eagerness in the audience, which will be channelled into responding to this consultation to ensure that science and research remain key to a successful industrial strategy. The closing date for consultation responses is 17th April 2017 and Thomas and his colleagues at BEIS are keen for this to be the start to a continuing conversation with the scientific community, amongst others.

Keeping track of all the changes in R&D investment can be tricky and confusing, so have a look at this factsheet by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE).

If you missed this month’s Policy Lunchbox, we streamed it live and you can still watch it on the Biochemical Society’s Facebook page.

Policy Lunchbox is a joint initiative between the Biochemical Society, the British Ecological Society, the Royal Society of Biology, Society for Applied Microbiology, Society of Experimental Biology and the Microbiology Society. You can sign up to the mailing list and receive invitations to events straight to your inbox.



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