This week I listened to a short talk by Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science. The premise of his talk was one of optimism about the successful technological development happening in Britain. The person I was sitting next to asked David Willetts, “This is good news. But, why is this the first time I’ve heard this?”
I searched for more information on the subject and found the text of a fuller version of the speech on the same subject David Willetts gave earlier this year. There’s also a comprehensive discussion of them in Eight Great Technologies pamphlet, written by David Willetts in association with Policy Exchange. I’ll let you read about the eight technologies in detail. This is a summary of the best bits of the pamphlet.
- The big data revolution and energy-efficient computing
- “Firstly, we are good at the algorithms needed to handle diverse large data sets,.. This goes back to our historic strengths in maths. Secondly, we have some of the world’s best and most complete data-sets in healthcare, demographics, agriculture and the environment. Our long and stable history means we have reliable data sets stretching further back in time than just about any country.”
- Satellites and commercial applications of space
- “British companies have focussed on making satellite technology more affordable with smaller, lighter-weight satellites that lower the cost of commercial launches. Surrey Satellites Technologies(SSTL), one of the UK’s single most successful university spinouts, is the world leader in high-performance small satellites. Roughly 40% of the world’s small satellites come from Guildford – and now even smaller nano-satellites are coming from SSTL and Clydespace in Glasgow.”
- Robotics and autonomous systems
- “Our comparative advantage comes from our skill in algorithms to programme autonomous systems to handle massive data flows fast. The unusual breadth of our world-class research base combining software, engineering, clinical medicine and ethics gives us a lead in the development of this truly cross-disciplinary technology.”
- Life sciences, genomics and synthetic biology
- “Many of the critical discoveries related to DNA were made in Britain, … the NHS with its nationwide patient records is another great national asset. The pharmaceutical industry is responsible for almost 30% of all business R&D in the UK.”
- Regenerative medicine
- “We have a leading position in the science and commercial translation of regenerative medicine. This comes from our cross-disciplinary research base. It is also because we have a well-balanced legislative and regulatory framework.”
- “Britain did not just lead the Industrial Revolution, we pioneered the Agricultural Revolution too…. Chickens are the world’s biggest source of meat, and are particularly important in Asia. We breed the world’s chickens – of the £85bn global poultry market, 80% of breeding chickens come from genetic stock developed in the UK. Thanks to our genetics research you get twice as much chicken for a given amount of chicken feed as 20 years ago. Each year we launch a new brand of chicken which will produce many generations over a year or more before a new improved version comes along.”
- Advanced materials and nano-technology
- “The UK has a long established reputation for excellent materials science, as well as industrial strengths in advanced materials. Wedgwood, Pilkington and the super-alloys and carbon fibre in Rolls Royce engines are all examples of successful business applications of materials research.”
- Energy and its storage
- “The UK has an internationally leading research base in energy storage basic science, but has ceded huge revenue generating opportunities in the manufacture of energy storage technologies to overseas competitors. The Li-ion battery, now in almost every portable computer, tablet and mobile phone in the world, was invented in the UK in 1980 but was only made commercially viable by use of Japanese manufacturing expertise, by which time benefit to the UK was lost.
Having read the 58-page pamphlet, it looks as though we’re improving our research & development investments, but we obviously need to do more to convert advances into manufacturing income.