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Supporting Innovation

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

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Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I am afraid that I do not have time. I apologise for that.

I will make two or three points about where the Scottish Government needs to improve.

I make a case for the creation of an innovation agency to draw together the multiple strands that lie behind innovation policy. That is not necessarily about doing anything new, but it is certainly about consolidating what currently happens. Anyone who knows anything about this area of policy will know the lessons of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is ironic, given the US’s rhetoric about the free market, that the US is perhaps one of the most interventionist states when it comes to innovation policy, with DARPA having created the internet, the global positioning system and the voice recognition behind Siri.

I commend the work of Nesta, which has done excellent work around the role of innovation agencies, and points to what could be done in Scotland. However, it contrasts in some regard with the Scottish Government’s record.

I recognise that there are initiatives, but we still have a cluttered institutional landscape with innovation policy falling between Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board. Until we consolidate that policy effort, we will continue to struggle.

The Government needs to think about innovation not only as something that it needs to support but as something that it needs to embrace, much in the way that Estonia has. Innovation cannot be the business of only private enterprise; it must also be seen as the core business of the public sector. In that regard, the Scottish Government must change its relationship with innovation.

I will briefly comment on the universities. Much of the good work on innovation in Scotland is thanks to our outstanding universities. We have twice the rate of spin-out companies from our universities that the rest of the UK has. However, the reality is—the numbers are clear—that the Scottish Government record is not good in that regard. The recent Audit Scotland report was unequivocal that spend has been cut in real terms by 12 per cent since 2014, and that we are receiving a falling share of UK research grants. That is due in no small part to the fact that the grants that are provided by the Scottish Government for research cover only 80 per cent of universities’ costs. That is a clear finding in the Audit Scotland report.

We must do more and at least meet the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. We must join up innovation policy, because there is urgency in respect of meeting the demands of climate change and technology change.