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Innovation for industry success

15 Nov 2016

How can science and technology feed into the UK’s industrial progress? Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, discusses

People often ask me why I moved from engineering into politics. Sometimes the tone is of amusement, sometimes of incredulity, sometime of frank disgust. I say that I went into politics for exactly the same reasons I went into engineering twenty-five years earlier – to make the world a better place.

For me, technology and politics are the twin engines of progress. From sharpened stones to mobile phones humans have innovated to improve their environment, their chances of survival, their wellbeing.

Science is the basis for innovation and technology, but it does much more than that. Research enables us to understand the limits of our understanding and then pushes those limits outwards. Science helps us define who we are and our place in the universe.

Science, engineering, innovation and research are therefore critical parts of our society, identity and future. So it’s important that we are so good at them. We need to make sure that continues to be the case and we get even better at diffusing science, engineering and technology through society and through our economy.

Innovation, particularly in engineering and science, is key to creating successful industry in Britain. It has the opportunity to provide a thriving economy and solve some of the greatest challenges facing humanity. Innovation could hold the keys to stopping climate change, lowering inequality and ending precarity if we embrace its potential.

However, some are concerned about the rise of the next wave of scientific achievement. Many fear the rise of the robots could result in fewer jobs. OECD research shows 25% of workers could see the majority of their work automated in the next ten years. I want this Government to be proactive and use technology to help create more jobs for people and across the country. Yet sadly, the Science and Technology Committee has condemned them for the complete absence of a strategy on this.

If the government were proactive in responding to automation, which is just one area where technology is shaping our future, it could herald a new era of more, better jobs, higher productivity and a thriving economy.

Many will be concerned about the government’s un-plan for Brexit. Being able to retain innovative businesses and attract high-skilled workers is key for science and engineering – these are the places and people who will provide solutions to the challenges facing us. Sadly the Government is more interested in maintaining the uneasy coalition of hard and soft brexiteers, along with Conservative remainers. While the Government has promised to underwrite current research funding from EU, they have provided no vision for how to make research thrive in the future.

This is made worse by the Government’s lack of R&D spending. Since 2010, our spending on Research and Development of 1.7% of GDP, has been significantly below the OECD average of 2.38% of GDP. A Labour government would bring this up to 3%.

All of our industries could grow through innovation and renewal—nurturing new types of relationships between sectors, and between manufacturing and services. We will obviously see innovation in technology and science, but we should hope to see it unleashed in process and business models. The creativity science is famous for should spill over into all areas of our economy.

Labour, by putting industrial strategy, science and innovation together in the same shadow minister, has recognised the role of innovation in directing smart, sustainable growth. Science has huge contributions to play in this.

Industrial strategy must work in line with innovation strategy because our industries will grow through innovation and renewal—nurturing new types of relationships between sectors, and between manufacturing and services. Science and engineering have a crucial role to play in creating these opportunities, and feeding into the innovation which will support our economy.

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