The government has a role in helping the UK raise its performance in innovation, but that role should focus on creating a climate in which innovative businesses and entrepreneurs can flourish. That was the conclusion of an audience of engineers, researchers, businessmen and businesswomen and civil servants at a debate at The Royal Academy of Engineering.

This was the Academy’s third debate in the Competing in the Global Economy series that took place on 20 January 2011 with the motion “This House believes that the best innovation happens without government intervention”. After a wide-ranging discussion, the motion was defeated decisively.

Proposing the motion, Professor David Payne CBE FREng FRS, director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton, stressed that innovation was not the same thing as invention: “Invention is the conversion of cash into ideas; innovation is the conversion of ideas into cash,” he said. “Innovation is the wandering of a free spirit unfettered by regulation, and unlimited by imagination. It is answerable only to the judgement of the market and of history. It disrupts the existing order and is the toolkit of the entrepreneur. Which one of these is a description of government?”

Supporting Professor Payne, Edward Atkin, the entrepreneur behind the innovative Avent baby-feeding systems, said that government involvement in industry over the past 200 years had usually been “unhappy”. Government decisions involved committees and were about coming to the least worst outcome, not the best outcome. “Innovation and government are incompatible,”, he said.

Opposing the motion was Professor Ian Shott CBE FREng, who built up the Excelsyn medical and pharmaceutical product development company. He said that government had a central role to play in creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurs by removing the “roadblocks” to innovation.

He noted that influential reports by the engineers Dr Hermann Hauser CBE FREng and Sir James Dyson CBE FREng in 2010 had identified many ways in which government could influence innovation, and there were lessons for the UK government from other countries. “I’m advocating a thoughtful approach in which the government operates in a joined-up manner alongside business and academia,” Professor Shott said.

Dr Graeme Reid from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who was also opposing the motion, said there were distinct and definite roles for government in developing skilled people, helping new and existing businesses and making the UK an attractive place to be innovative. He said: “Selective government intervention is important to business and government procurement can provide a stimulus to innovation.”

In this wide-ranging debate, the House found common cause that government working methods were often not conducive to direct involvement in innovation, but that support from government, for example in terms of infrastructure, was crucial to UK success in innovation.

The motion was defeated by a margin of two to one.

The debate was the third in a series covering issues at the heart of UK economic and business performance, under the banner of Competing in the Global Economy. Previous debates in the series have covered the impact of foreign ownership of UK corporate entities and the degree to which a larger manufacturing sector could lead to sustainable growth for the UK economy.

See follow-up article in  The Engineer

Notes for editors

  1. In this new series of debates, The Royal Academy of Engineering is exploring some of the fundamental challenges facing the UK as it strives to compete in a turbulent global economy. The series brings together engineers, industry leaders, economists and policy makers to test through debate the validity of a range of policies at the heart of UK competitiveness.

    A second series of debates will take place in early summer on the theme of natural resources.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton