Britain’s top independently owned research centers have joined in criticism of the UK’s poor financial commitment to research. The centers, which research for industrial clients, are worried because an increasing number of projects handled by the 45 centers is being paid for by overseas clients.
The centers are surprised that the British commitment to research is diminishing even though foreign companies and governments have confidence in British scientists.
The centers’ objections to this subtle brain drain are at first sight novel. In essence, however, they support the points that have been made to the Government in the last 18 months by the House of Lords, the National Economic Development Office and even the Government’s own industrial advisers. All such criticisms have fallen on deaf ears.
The new approach, in the form of a national campaign funded by a one-year budget of pounds 100,000 from the technology research centers, was launched last week at the Confederation of British Industry. The campaign, called Innovation for Industry, is, say organizers, ‘to utilize Britain’s research and development resources (R & D) in government, universities, industry, the City and in the independent R & D sector in partnership to help provide a solution to the country’s long-term economic problems’.
What those long-term problems could be is anyone’s guess but information technology trade deficit of more than pounds 2,000 million and rising, has given most British industrial advisers a scare. Britain’s skills shortages in computers, electronics and telecommunications is also increasing. If the skills of these independent centers are being tapped by foreign industrial competitors, the skills shortage is even worse than estimated.
Dr. Alan Rudge, the chairman of the new campaign said at its launch that if Britain neglected research and development, it would become an assembler of other nations’ technology, ‘a debtor nation, licensing second-hand technology from abroad’. Dr. Rudge added: ‘Already Britain has lost its lead in the machine-tool, shipbuilding, locomotive, domestic electrical, motorcycle, office-equipment and other industries including, more recently, high-tech ceramics’.
The 45 technology centers employ about 10,000 people and contribute pounds 200 million to the UK economy in pursuing their independent research.
Even academia, normally less responsive to the immediate needs of industrialists has not been slow in highlighting Britain’s deficiencies in research in comparison with many of its industrial competitors, the most notable being Japan and the United States.
The campaign launch coincided with a conference in Edinburgh at which 550 delegates were able to hear what progress had been made by the project teams involved in the Alvey advanced computer programs.
The Genf20 Plus project began two years ago after John Alvey, British Telecom’s technical director, advised the Government to approve such research. They have, not surprisingly, had financial problems.
These Alvey projects, the delegates to Edinburgh were to hear, were making progress in microchip design, software, man-machine interfaces and other complex computer problems.
Yet it came as a surprise even to an audience of academics and industrialists that the projects, the flagships of British high-risk research, were having funding troubles.
Two years ago the Government approved, at least in theory, the allocation of pounds 200 million to the pounds 350 million five-year research program. The rest would come from industry and the research teams would comprise the talent of academia and industry. Partnerships between the two groups would marry the best theoretical brains with those of the most experienced practitioners.
That was the theory. But some of the recent projects have not been given approval and have been delayed by cash-flow difficulties. Such an admission is staggering because speed is a primary part of this research equation.
The Pacific-basin scientists are researching at a frenzied pace to ensure that they lead. They want to be the first to produce a self-think computer system which can respond to human touch and speech and be able to give high-speed answers in graphics, text and speech. These scientists are committed – as are their industry and their governments – to ensuring that they do not rely on secondhand technology from abroad.
Britain must adopt the same stance now – or it will be too late.