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Supporting Innovation

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this afternoon’s debate. The topic cuts through every sector of Scotland’s economy, be that in areas such as vertical farming or the development of therapies to modify the immune system.

Scotland has a long tradition of leading innovation and technology. Pioneering and groundbreaking research and development have been cultivated in our world-class universities. Members need look no further than the joint venture between two of Edinburgh’s universities—Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh—to develop the UK’s first national robotarium by 2021

The increasing links between Edinburgh’s informatics community, the recently opened Bayes centre at the University of Edinburgh and the Alan Turing Institute, alongside the construction of the national robotarium, will create additional entry points for collaborative data-driven research.

However, nowhere is innovation needed more than it is in tackling our climate emergency, which is the single biggest threat of the 21st century—or any century for that matter. With the passing of the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, which includes targets to have all emissions offset by 2045 and interim targets of 75 per cent by 2030, we are one step closer to tackling that emergency. Although that will be transformational, we will face many obstacles along the way. What comes next will require tremendous effort, difficult choices and increased resources.

We require that 35 million people across the UK change their cars to electric vehicles or give up car ownership entirely. We will have to grow the market for electric vehicles from 1 per cent of sales today to 100 per cent of sales in 10 years. Innovation will be needed in order to drive a transition of that magnitude.

Those are the sectors where we know what to do, but removing CO2 from the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate will necessitate technologies that are not even in the pilot phase. In aviation, where the only serious solution at the moment is to fly less, and in farming, where methods will need to change dramatically, new technologies and innovative solutions will be imperative.

To underpin all that will require our reforming the regulation of finance and investment, skills and innovation and industrial support; it will also require reshaping the institutions of the Scottish and UK Governments centrally and locally.

The Scottish national investment bank can help with our ambitions by creating a sharp focus on new markets. That needs to drive our transition away from carbon-dependent industries. I want there to be a new UK-wide green investment bank, too.

If we are to meet our aim of growing our economy by making Scotland one of the most innovative places in the world, investment in education is vital. A Universities Scotland report has revealed that, over the past three years, there has been a 53 per cent increase in the number of start-up companies created by students and graduates. That underscores why education is key to innovation. The way to establish the high-wage, high-skill economy that we strive towards is to significantly invest in education and in the skills economy. By doing that, we can create a bright and sustainable future for everyone.

It is 10 years since the Scottish Science Advisory Council warned that the

“outputs of Scotland’s universities ... are not being captured by Scottish industry”.

It further warned that that meant that industry exerted

“little influence on the research undertaken in academia.”

I am very interested to hear from the minister when he closes how far the Government thinks that we have moved in the past 10 years and how much we have heeded the council’s message.

As our economy rapidly changes, the need for people to retrain and reskill has never been more imperative. It is no longer the case that the skills learned at the age of 18 or 21 will last for a lifetime or a career. The ability to learn new skills or change careers is also critical to creating changes for people to succeed in adverse economic circumstances, no matter their stage in life.

College is a vital portal to further learning and work. In that regard, I must remind the chamber that 140,000 college places have been lost on the SNP’s watch, the overwhelming majority of which were part-time places, which are accessed by those for whom studying full time is not an opportunity that they can take. Hundreds of thousands of people have missed out on opportunities to learn, and the hardest hit have been women, those who have to earn at the same time as they learn and those with caring responsibilities.

On innovation, the Government committed to a £500,000 college innovation fund. I do not think that that fully compensates for the losses that I have just mentioned, but I would be interested in hearing from the minister about the impact that it has had.

The cuts prevented people from retraining and equipping themselves for a new career at a time when businesses are reporting in survey after survey that they are struggling to find the skills that they need. We need a massive investment in education, skills and retraining. Then and only then will Scotland be a pioneer in innovation.