About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

To create a competitive and inclusive future economy, we need policies that create the right conditions for young people to realise their innovative potential.

We recommend that:

1. All young people should have an opportunity to have at least one ‘hands-on’ experience of innovation or invention during their time at school.

Our data suggests that at least five times as much provision is needed in order to reach all UK pupils at least once during their school careers. This could be achieved by scaling up current schemes and by incorporating more innovation-focused activities into existing provision, such as the work of the Science Centres.

  • Efforts to expand provision should focus specifically on reaching under-represented groups. Our research suggests that schools with more disadvantaged pupil populations are less likely than others to get involved in ‘hands-on’ innovation schemes.
  • Government should invest in evaluation and support for providers to design evidence-informed interventions. Currently, interventions rarely report on their impact, and most do not state in any precise way the outcomes they hope to achieve. The field would benefit from a shared measurement framework, possibly adapted from the Science Capital approach. The sector should be encouraged, and supported, to experiment with different programmes and approaches to see what works best, and find out what does not work.
  • Invention should be promoted through traditionally creative disciplines as well as STEM. The majority of schemes we found approach invention and innovation from a STEM perspective. While this is clearly important, STEM subjects are not the only ‘way in’ to invention. We think a range of approaches should be tested, including those that approach invention through art, design and other creative subjects.

2. Fostering a wider and more diverse pool of innovators must not fall between the cracks of education and innovation policy.

Fostering innovators from an early age should be a shared priority across education and innovation policy. As part of this, there is a clear case for innovation policymakers to shift investment ‘upstream’ - investing more in fostering innovators from an early age, not only supporting business innovation. In 2016-17, tax reliefs for innovation cost the UK government an estimated £4.45bn.

Investing a fraction of this amount could massively increase the scale and reach of schemes supporting young people to innovate, and help address the evidence gap.

  • DfE, BEIS and UK Research & Innovation should create a joint strategy to ensure that all children have ‘exposure to innovation’ during their school careers.
  • Fostering diversity in innovation, and building a pipeline of innovators, should be a priority for delivering the government’s Industrial strategy, both at national and local levels.

Fostering diversity in innovation, and building a pipeline of innovators, should be a priority for delivering the government’s Industrial strategy, both at national and local levels.

3. Better coordination across providers is needed to create a more evidence-based, coherent and impactful offer for young people.

There are many organisations working in this field and opportunities for far greater collaboration and coordination between them. This is particularly important given that the fragmentation of the education system, especially in England, presents a challenge in spreading provision and increases the risk that schools with less capacity and resources are less likely to take part.

  • A cross-sector coalition should be set up to promote exposure to innovation among young people and support schools and colleges to access opportunities. We would like to see joint action between relevant government departments and arms-length bodies (e.g. Department for Education; Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; UK Research and Innovation; Careers and Enterprise Company), organisations that have an interest in invention and diversity, schools and businesses to help spread ‘invention’ schemes and get more innovative businesses engaging with schools and young people.

4. A strategy to increase diversity in innovation needs to focus on young people’s networks, not only their skills

We found more examples of interventions that help children develop and apply innovation skills than those helping children meet role models and get to know people working in innovation. Where interventions do include an element of network building, it is often light touch - for example, children meeting innovators at one-off events, talks in schools or awards days.

  • Innovative businesses should be encouraged and enabled to build long-term relationships with schools, for example through offering work experience, apprenticeships, careers talks, supporting employee volunteering with ‘invention’ schemes and sponsoring competitions and challenges. There are already lots of examples of this happening and organisations actively promoting this (e.g. STEM Ambassadors), but also an indication that more is possible. For example, previous work by Nesta has estimated that just 1% of workers in the tech sector regularly volunteer. In particular, young people unable to easily build their own networks need support to develop sustained and effective networks with innovative employers.
  • Innovate UK could work with the Careers and Enterprise Company to encourage more innovative businesses - especially smaller organisations - engaged with schools. The Careers and Enterprise Company, which has a lead role in delivering the government’s new Careers Strategy, has a network of ‘Enterprise Advisors’ engaging with schools across England. Their data shows that while these come from a range of sectors, professional services is particularly strongly represented in relation to overall employee numbers in the UK. Pupils should have as much chance to get meaningful experiences of work with innovative companies as they do with law, accountancy or consultancy firms.

DfE, BEIS and UK Research & Innovation should create a joint strategy to ensure that all children have ‘exposure to innovation’ during their school careers.

5. Government should invest in research and data on diversity in innovation and pathways into innovation.

The evidence base on factors that affect likelihood to become an inventor or innovator is surprisingly weak, and we lack data to understand which groups are over- and under-represented, and what might be done to improve diversity.

  • Government should invest in long term evaluations and data to track pathways of innovators over time, so that we can better understand factors that affect whether people become inventors, and explore the impact of policies across systems. This is particularly important in finding out more about the role of upbringing and social class, which are less easy to observe or infer than characteristics like gender. In the United States, the ‘lost Einsteins’ study used linked data on family income (from tax records), school results and patent applications to show how people from the highest-income families were much more likely than others to become inventors.
  • UK Research & Innovation should invest in data collection and metrics to explore gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background of innovators. It publishes data annually from the Research Councils on diversity in higher education, but nothing comparable about innovation.

6. The school curriculum should support young people’s invention skills and promote exposure to innovation

Extra-curricular interventions are important and give young people experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have. But what happens within the school day is still likely to have a larger effect on their skills and knowledge. We would like to see more problem solving and real world experiences within the curriculum.

  • Existing opportunities for hands-on innovation activities should be encouraged across more schools. Qualifications such as Extended Project Qualifications and CREST awards offer opportunities for young people to take part in research and problem-solving activities within school. Schools should also be supported to offer more interdisciplinary learning, for example, combining STEM and more traditionally creative subjects to develop creativity and problem-solving throughout the curriculum. The Department for Education could look to other countries like Finland who offer successful interdisciplinary learning for inspiration.
  • Teachers need support from school leaders and external organisations to offer innovative activities for all students. Teachers need time and support to introduce opportunities like Extended Project Qualifications into their school, both from senior leaders and from external training and guidance. The Department for Education should ensure training and guidance is easily accessible for teachers on effective innovation schemes and that interventions are easily accessible.


Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Juliet Ollard

Data Justice Senior Researcher, Data Analytics Practice

Juliet was a senior researcher in the Inclusive Impact unit within Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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Nancy Wilkinson

Nancy Wilkinson

Nancy Wilkinson

Senior Programme Manager, fairer start mission

Nancy leads Nesta's work on technology and education, overseeing a partnership with the Department for Education to help schools make more effective use of technology.

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