The Science and Technology Committee of the UK parliament has today published a report that looks at government plans to set up a network of Technology and Innovation Centres (TICs), and discusses the policy in the light of previous unsuccessful attempts at translating academic discoveries into real world economic benefits.
Established in the 1990s, the Faraday Partnership model received a poor level of industry support. It is also an administrative mess, and is generally regarded as a failure. Insufficient core funding was a major problem, and what little money was available tended to be spread too thinly.
In 2004, Faraday Partnerships were replaced with so-called Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs), and those of a cynical disposition who study the graduate job market may have noticed at that time an explosion of openings in university administration departments for KTN managers. Knowledge Transfer created opportunities aplenty, although not quite as intended.
In establishing the new TICs, the British government claims that lessons have been learned from past mistakes, and that the answer is to adopt the nearly 40-year-old German Fraunhofer model, in which the state provides one third of the funding for independent research centres that focus on particular specialist areas of applied science and engineering. The other two thirds of the funding comes from EU programmes and commercial contracts.
Aside from its substantive comments on the detail of the government’s plans, the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee recommends that TICs be known as “Turing Centres”, after the mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing, whose homophobic persecution by the authorities led to his suicide in 1954 at the age of 41. In September 2009, following a public campaign and petition which attracted tens of thousands of signatures, former prime minister Gordon Brown made a posthumous apology to Turing on behalf of the nation.
As for the TIC idea itself, the Science and Technology Committee is broadly supportive, although in the report it expresses some concern about the long-term operation and review of the network. The committee calls for the setting up of an innovation endowment fund, and also a catalogue of existing UK capabilities that would benefit small and medium-scale enterprises looking to engage in specific technology areas. It is hard to believe that such a database does not already exist.
“Technology and Innovation Centres: second report of session 2010–2011”, House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, 17 February 2011