Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 15th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bhattacharyya Lord Bhattacharyya Labour 7:00 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the register, and specifically to my chairmanship of WMG at the University of Warwick. I should also mention that I served as a member of Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the UK research and innovation landscape that put all this together.

As peace appears to be breaking out today, I hope that those who laboured for so long in the salt mines of Committee will allow me a few brief words on Amendments 166, 173 and 183. All three will help Innovate UK promote partnerships between business and academia. I can tell your Lordships that that can be a tough job. When I started WMG, we encountered a lot of opposition. Academics are protective of their independence from commerce. However, engineers like making an impact—the bigger, the better—so their curiosity won out in the end.

We know that academic traditions can obstruct business collaboration. For example, grant application writing is a highly prized skill in universities, for a very good reason: critical assessment of research proposals is vital to academic debate. Businesses see this rather differently, especially if they are expected to disclose commercially sensitive knowledge. The Technology Strategy Board was created to address this cultural gap. We debated it here for about four years before it was formed because there were arguments on whether government should intervene and pick winners and many other arguments at that time. But we won and the Technology Strategy Board was created. Of course, this body is now Innovate UK.

Change is constant, so Innovate UK needs leaders who understand the way business and science are changing, as well as the flexibility to create the right partnerships. Amendment 166 would ensure this. Today, every business is multidisciplinary. If you make cars, you need programmers, cryptographers and medical researchers, as well as metallurgists and engineers. Bringing Innovate UK and the research councils under the same roof makes both scientific and commercial sense. Amendments 173 and 183 will ensure both business and scientific knowledge in Innovate UK’s leadership, allowing it to build flexible partnerships with business.

Innovate UK’s role is to act as a catalyst for business collaboration and partnership with academia. However, although flexibility is needed, Innovate UK should not be a bank. It has neither the resources nor the skill set. Instead, it should use its commercial expertise to create incentives to encourage businesses to invest in innovation. Its role is that of a matchmaker, not a moneylender. Its role has to be improve productivity in this country via scientific research. The amendments in this group will help Innovate UK deliver on that vital task. More generally, the amendments proposed elsewhere today will do the same for UKRI as a whole.