Innovation Centres: Connecting the Future
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Here in the UK, we have some of the world’s top universities. Alongside the US, our leading institutions dominate all the league tables for high-quality research; but unlike the US, our economy doesn’t rate particularly well in applying this innovative research and development (R&D) to industrial applications – and in the process creating wider economic benefit.
R&D spend in the Higher Education (HE) sector in Scotland is genuinely world-leading; with about 8.5% of the UK population, we competitively win around 13.5% of the UK’s research funding. As a result, of all the UK’s regions, Scotland ranks first in R&D spend as a proportion of GDP, and fourth in the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, when we measure private sector business enterprise R&D (BERD), we rate very poorly indeed: only 0.74% of GDP, ranking Scotland eighth amongst all UK regions and solidly down in the third quartile of all OECD economies. (By comparison, BERD in Israel and Korea runs at more than 3% of GDP.)
So, we are great at innovation but could do much better at creating business success and economic benefit from this innovation. This conundrum has puzzled governments and economic agencies over the years. Part of the problem is that there are very few innovative corporations with head offices in Scotland capable of taking up research developments and bringing them to market.
Here in Scotland, however, we clearly have a more chronic need – even more severe than in the rest of the UK – to address this problem, and that is why the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has developed policies to try and help.
In 2013, SFC, in conjunction with Scottish Enterprise and Highland and Island Enterprise, encouraged the formation of a new breed of ‘Innovation Centres’ to support transformational collaboration between universities and businesses. The Centres aim to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship across Scotland’s key economic sectors, create jobs and grow the economy. All of these Innovation Centres have backing from industry and draw on all of Scotland’s research expertise in the relevant sector – crucially to work on problems and opportunities identified by industry. They arrange secondments, industrial studentships and spaces for collaborative work, and share equipment. Now that these Centres have bedded down, it is fascinating to see what progress they have made in the short time since they have been established.
According to the reports in this special issue of Science Scotland, it looks good so far, in terms of the number of projects launched and the amount of matched investment now pouring into research. This gives us reason to hope that these new Innovation Centres can rise to the challenge of helping the Scottish economy to compete better in the modern world.