Make the election about skills for innovation

 Next government needs a workforce plan for R&D, say Tony Kinsella and Jane Gate

The UK has entered election mode. November’s autumn statement from chancellor Jeremy Hunt was widely seen as firing the starting gun on the campaign, and prime minister Rishi Sunak has hinted that the poll will come in the autumn.

The UK’s innovation, research and technology sector is considering its priorities for the next government. In many ways, it starts from a strong position. With a combined turnover exceeding £6.9 billion, the sector employs over 57,000 scientific and technical staff and contributes an estimated £34bn to UK GDP.

The autumn statement cemented earlier commitments to public investment in science and innovation. The government continues to talk of making the country a science and technology superpower.

There is, though, no room for complacency. Identifying the key levers that the UK government could deploy to harness people, capabilities and collaborations to accelerate innovation is critical—both for the economy and for delivering the level of innovation required to tackle big missions such as chronic ill health, poverty and the climate crisis.

Regardless of who wins the general election, the next government must put the development of people at the heart of the UK’s plan for growth over the next decade. For research and innovation, that should take the form of a comprehensive workforce plan, encompassing education and skills development and involving the key players from industry, academia and the broader sector.

The right mix

Employing the right mix of qualified scientists, engineers and innovative business leaders is critical in driving productivity. It is people who form the bridge that transfers ideas back and forth between academia and commercial markets.

The UK already faces a skills shortage, with the Open University’s 2023 Business Barometer reporting that 73 per cent of organisations have problems finding the right staff. A May 2023 analysis by EngineeringUK found that a quarter of of all job postings were for engineering roles.

For science and innovation, as well as building the technical skills needed to meet challenges such as adapting to artificial intelligence and driving the green transition, the mix must include growing business skills. It is vital to overcome the peculiar British notion that markets can be bludgeoned into submission with technical prowess and that intellectual horsepower alone is enough to create a business.

Commercial technocrats

Developing commercial capabilities and business acumen in scientists and engineers is vitally important. Translating technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace requires creative and productive people—commercial technocrats—with a visionary mindset and the business skills to understand commercial and customer needs.

These are people with deep and credible technical knowledge, which signals confidence and credibility to the markets. They are also articulate and energising on a commercial front, able to understand and work with the economics of prospective clients and markets at all levels. Commercial technocrats are skilled in two-way communication, where listening often does more good than speaking, and good at persuading and influencing others.

Some approaches aimed at developing people with what it takes to become commercial technocrats are already being applied. We see this at play in training programmes such as the National Physical Laboratory’s Postgraduate Institute for Measurement Science, run in collaboration with universities. Other schemes are in place across the UK’s public sector research establishments, Catapult centres and independent research and technology organisations…Read more