The £22 billion windfall for UK innovation in today’s Budget is not only a huge opportunity but an imperative for post-Brexit Britain. It more than doubles the current budget by 2024 and signals a strong belief that the UK’s long term future relies on its ability to innovate.
The commitment to the much talked about ‘ARPA’ indicates a Government focused on breakthrough technologies, but most detail on how the extra money will be spent has been deferred until the spending review due later this year.
There are four ways of getting this right: R&D spend needs to be more mission-driven, more focused on bringing new ideas into the real world, more devolved and more accountable.
Nesta’s research shows that the public wants to see innovation spending tackling societal challenges: climate change, inequality and poor health. The Government now needs to show how it will align this significant investment with these priorities. Nesta believes that a greater proportion of the R&D budget should be mission-driven, rather than purely curiosity-driven.
Investment needs to be spread across each stage of the research and innovation life cycle, potentially with a greater proportion allocated to testing ideas in the real world, commercialisation, diffusion and market creation.
The boost in funding is an opportunity to redistribute R&D across the country. The Chancellor recognised that R&D money is currently concentrated in London, the South East and the East of England, but he didn’t give any hint of how this might be changed in future. In practice, this will require a willingness to move away from distributing funding solely on the basis of ‘excellence’ and targeting much more to areas that currently have less R&D activity.
Nesta has argued that devolving part of the R&D budget to cities and regions should be part of the solution; a bold move is needed in order to break the cycle whereby the highest-performing places are also best positioned to attract the most funding.
Finally, more resource needs to come with more accountability and public scrutiny - £22bn a year is more than twice the amount central Government spends on policing. The Government, its departments and agencies need to be more open about how money is being spent, and we’d like to see the public more involved in setting priorities for that investment. At the same time, the public and future governments will need to demonstrate patience and appetite for risk: we can’t tackle big problems without some failures along the way. This means getting a tricky balance right: empowering innovators, while engaging with the public and taking their views into account.