In the third of its series of debates on competing in the global economy, the Royal Academy of Engineering will tomorrow discuss the motion that ‘This House believes that the best innovation happens without government intervention’.

Innovation in both product and process is universally seen as essential to competitiveness in global markets. But what role does the government have, if any? Attempts by past UK governments to “pick winners” met with limited success, and outside the defence field publicly owned corporations often seem to have been slow or inefficient in adopting new technologies.

Should the government stay out of direct involvement in innovation and restrict its activities to creating the best possible conditions for businesses of all kinds to flourish? Does the best innovation result from market pull rather than technology push? And are companies that are close to their customers always going to be better placed than governments to deliver true innovation?

Chair: Professor Sir William Wakeham FREng Vice President and Honorary International Secretary The Royal Academy of Engineering

Panel: For: Professor David Payne CBE FREng FRS Director, Optoelectronics Research Centre, University of Southampton

Edward Atkin Founder and Former Owner, Avent

Against: Dr Graeme Reid Deputy Director Economic Impact Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

Professor Ian Shott CBE FREng Chairman, Leadership Forum on Industrial Biotechnology

Proposing the motion, Professor David Payne, Director of the Optoelectronics Centre at the University of Southampton, says: "Innovation is the wandering of a free spirit unfettered by regulation, unlimited by imagination and answerable only to the judgement of the market and of history.  It disrupts the existing order and is the toolkit of the entrepreneur.  It is everything that government is not.

“The role of government is to support and create an environment in which innovation can thrive to create the wealth of the nation - it is not to become involved in the process."

Edward Atkin, Founder and Former Owner of Avent, says: "Government intervention and innovation are mutually incompatible. Would anyone think it was a good idea to ask a teetotaller to select the wine?"

Opposing the motion, Professor Ian Shott, Chairman of the Leadership Forum on Industrial Biotechnology, will talk about highly selective government intervention where there is a market failure and in particular where there may be prohibitive capital investment barriers, and will highlight examples of good practice from his own field.

For more details of the debate download the flyer (127.77 KB)

Notes for editors

  1. The debate will take place at 6pm on Thursday 20 January 2011 at the Royal Academy of Engineering, 3 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1.
  2. In this 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.
  3. 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