Barriers to innovation and change

22 05 2009

My closing speech at the Battle for the Economy conference

Taking risksWe have to frame this discussion within a cultural and a political context. Our society has become tremendously risk averse at every level. Common sense tells us it is unlikely that we can create a more dynamic and innovative economy when we are afraid to send our children to the park on their own, and how likely are these over protected children  to become confident risk takers as they grow up?

This may seem too much of a generalisation, but if you look at the specifics of what is happening in our economy you can see the links.

Take first of some of the better commodity producing  parts of our economy, the bits which actually make new things. Foremost in these are aerospace, pharmaceuticals, bioscience and energy. Each of these industries has been subjected to intense criticism for their supposed threats to us as consumers or to the environment. The aerospace industry is held responsible for global warming , as is the energy industry. The pharmaceutical industry is held in deep suspicion of selling us drugs which cause more harm than good. The biosciences have been held back by fears of Frankenstein food amongst other things. Many of these negative sentiments have been allowed to go unchallenged by our political leaders, sunk as they are in the mire of market research led policies.

How likely is it that these industries can attract the best and brightest young people to work in them or the support they need in universities or from investors when they are held in such low esteem?

Almost every time a crisis has arisen in public confidence the instinct of our political leaders has been to cut and run: Tony Blair over the MMR scare and nearly the whole political class over nuclear power and GM food. This has helped to create a lack of trust in science  and an irrational approach to what are the most exciting areas of development in medicine and other things.

The lack of leadership has encouraged this mood of anti-science and anti-progress, so much so that when swine flu broke out in a school down the road from me local opinion was divided between those who didn’t believe some scientists’ claims that  it  was a real threat, and those who took heed of this warning, but did not believe that Tamiflu was safe and not a dangerous kin to thalidomide, for example.

Secondly, also stemming from our over inflated sense of risk is the belief that economic growth in itself, whatever the source,  is problematic. There are even people who say that recessions are good for us and for the planet. These anti-growth sentiments fly in the face of reality, as all human progress is built on material prosperity. Yet they are very influential.

Thirdly, many of these anti-growth feelings are wrapped up in the idea of the Green New Deal, which seeks that progress and development be restricted to areas that can be proven to do no harm to the planet. This narrow criterion threatens to divert investment down narrow channels and hold up progress elsewhere.

Any threat to the environment or indeed any other challenge we face, is best dealt with by encouraging scientific and economic development on a broad front. Often scientists and technologists come up with solutions to problems they were not themselves originally looking for. To narrow down the areas of scientific endeavour too much risks those serendepitous discoveries.

Even on the terms of alternative energy itself, encouraging economic growth offers the best way forward. China creates 16% of its electricity through renewable sources, compared with 4% in the UK. This is  because China ‘s demand for energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy is such that it is prepared and able to experiment and innovate on a grander scale then we are here.

Finally, in the UK we have lower than OECD levels of both VC investment and R&D, but this is not because there is an absolute shortage of investment money available. Rather, risk aversion is what dominates large investors. The roots of the financial crisis lay in the fact that vast sums of money were recycled through financial instruments with a view to spreading and avoiding risk, incredible as it now seems.

There may be a case, as people like Lord Drayson are arguing, for diverting more of our State resources into encouraging innovation, but science and innovation need to be unwrapped from the risk aversion which surrounds and infuses them at the moment. Perhaps some of the money which is going into authoritarian measures such as ID cards, or the extension of CRB checks could be diverted into encouraging productive investment instead. In other words, this is a politicial and cultural problem about priorities, not an economic one, and so it needs to be tackled at that level.

It is clearer than ever before that there is a close connection between the failures of political leadership and the problems of our economic set up. You cannot tackle one without the other. The good news is that unlike, for example, a cure for cancer, the cure for our political problems lies in our own hands in the here and now.

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27 01 2010
The ‘reindustrialisation’of Britain « UK After The Recession

[…] sustainability is one of the main problems we need to confront if the UK is to recover a sense of innovation and spirit. In the past, nations set themselves the tasks of conquering space or curing cancer, […]

12 04 2010
Ten questions to ask your candidates about the UK economy « UK After The Recession

[…] has been a very risk averse public response in this country to some cutting edge scientific developments, such as GM food, […]

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