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Technology versus technocracy: innovation policy’s Faustian bargain

Over the past 20 years, innovation policy in the UK has been a technocratic business.

At first glance, this might seem like a good thing. Because innovation policy has been non-partisan, major policies have been implemented with great consistency and focus since 2000. Think of the ring-fence for science funding, R&D tax credits, the Technology Strategy Board, and SBRI*.

And I hope you won’t think I’m being a crawler when I say that the UK has been lucky to have as Ministers for Innovation a series of highly competent, pragmatic brainiacs in the persons of Lords Sainsbury and Drayson, and David Willetts**. It’s notable that they speak of one another’s work with great respect.

But for all the benefits of stability, this technocratic tendency is a bit of of a Faustian bargain.

Because while innovation has thankfully been spared the to-ings and fro-ings that have afflicted health or welfare policy, it has also kept it off the top table of national political debate.

This is a problem if you believe that government should put more of its efforts into supporting innovation***. If innovation isn’t a priority for voters, it’s likely to be last in the queue for further funding.****

Research we’re publishing today casts new light on this issue. Nesta worked with ComRes to survey several thousand people around the UK to understand their attitudes to innovation and innovation policy. As far as we know, no-one has done this anywhere before, with the exception of a small study done by US pollsters Luntz Maslansky in 2007.

Basically, the research showed that talking about innovation and technology as an inherently good thing appeals to a pretty small proportion of the population – 19%, so just under one in five. These people were disproportionately likely to be professionals and university educated. So far, so predictable.

The interesting thing came when we looked at the wider population. Most of the rest of population quite liked the idea of innovation – but only as long as it was discussed in terms of specific benefits: better healthcare, higher standards of living, a cleaner environment, or whatever. These groups also wanted an honest debate about the downsides of innovation: lost jobs, waste and pollution, social alienation*****.

If these issues were addressed, they were not only in favour of innovation but supportive of the idea of the government spending more of their money to help make it happen. And getting these groups onside means a policymaker is no longer talking to just 19% of the population, but more like 70%.

So there seems to be a message here for anyone who thinks innovation is important and that the government has a role to play in promoting it.

It is entirely possible to get popular support for more public innovation funding. But to do this, you need to make a case for it. And to make this case appealing to more than just a geeky and affluent minority, you need to discuss what innovation is for, and both its upsides and its downsides.

So here’s the challenge for the next generation of Britain’s innovation policymakers. Can you preserve the benefits of the last 20 years of policy – generally sensible programmes pursued with some consistency – with a genuinely popular message that provides a mandate to do much, much more?

* Yes, I know the current government maintained the ring-fence only in nominal terms and excluded capital spending – but given the overall austerity targets requested of BIS, even doing this is quite a commitment. TSB funding, the SBRI and R&D tax credits have of course all been expanded since 2010.

** If Liam Byrne were to become Innovation Minister after the next election, we might expect the trend to continue.

*** I note in passing that Finland, a world leader in innovation, spends ten times more public money on TEKES, its equivalent of our Technology Strategy Board, relative to the size of its economy.

**** Worth noting that in some countries with a strong reputation for innovation, this is a battle that’s been won. I once asked Esko Aho, Finland’s prime minister in the early 1990s who maintained public spending on innovation in the teeth of deep austerity how he made the case for it. “It wasn’t so hard”, he said, “people understood this was the only way for the country to recover”.

***** Of course, there are strong parallels to existing surveys on public attitudes to science, which show that the UK population is pretty sophisticated about science, certainly not “anti-science”, and interested in issues about power and tradeoffs.


Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Stian Westlake

Executive Director of Policy and Research

Stian led Nesta's Policy and Research team. His research interests included the measurement of innovation and its effects on productivity, the role of high-growth businesses in the eco…

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