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UK's First Innovation Minister Describes Ambitious Plan for Grand Challenges
The UK government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown has reorganized S&T at the top level of government and is pursuing an ambitious new campaign to make innovation a policy centerpiece on issues such as climate change and sustainable development. Stressing the importance of international collaborations, the new minister of the nation's Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills explained to a AAAS audience "how the UK is gearing up to the challenges of a globalized world."
John Denham, the first head of the newly founded innovation department, emphasized that boosting innovation comes from not only by increasing the UK science budget but also from a new approach of tapping multiple sources of innovation—from consumers to researchers to private businesses. The strategies are detailed in his department's March 2008 white paper "Innovation Nation".
During Denham's 21 April public lecture at AAAS, cosponsored by the AAAS International Office and the British Embassy, he explained how over the next three years about a fifth of the UK's science budget will be allocated to specific grand challenges facing the planet: energy, environment, lifelong health and global security. "It is clearly not for me to determine how scientists will approach these challenges," Denham said. "But I believe it is right to focus efforts in particular areas."
Denham said that he hopes other countries will pursue similar goals in order to solve global problems. "The real answers will only come through international collaboration, through combining the strengths of our research base with those of our partners overseas," he said during his AAAS lecture.
Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer, said Denham's lecture exemplifies AAAS's effort to bring together the science and the science policy communities for high-level discussions. "It's impressive that someone is thinking of these things at a very senior level and is speaking to these issues with interest and knowledge," Turekian said. "Nations are beginning to look at different approaches for promoting innovation that include, but are not limited to, government investment in basic research."
Prime Minister Gordon Brown created DIUS last July as one of his first actions in office, combining key parts of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education and Skills to form the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. The new department "brings together key policy areas considered critical for the nation's future," said Denham, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry. "The creation of my department signals a government that is excited by science."
By focusing on specific research themes, the UK hopes "to make headway on challenges certain to preoccupy every society for decades to come," he said. "Our aim is to find solutions on hydrogen storage that could enable the mass production of non-polluting cars or identify new treatments for disease."
Highlighting the strength of the UK's medical research, Denham told the AAAS audience how the UK's Medical Research Council budget will increase by 30% over the next three years. About a quarter of that work will support research collaborations with U.S. researchers. He also described plans to build two new research facilities, including the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. The London-based Centre, scheduled to open in 2013, "will be Europe's largest medical research centre," Denham said. "And we expect it to be a leading institution for the training of scientists."
Universities, the private sector and individuals can all be part of spurring innovation in order to solve global challenges, a concept promoted in the "Innovation Nation" white paper. "We need to apply a new understanding of innovation, and recognize a multiplicity of sources of innovation," Denham said at AAAS. Accordingly, an aim of his department is to "create a society where individual talent is unlocked, where no one is left behind and in which everyone can participate."
Denham's department also intends to promote public understanding of S&T, an effort he said he described as "crucial for our democracy." Citing examples issues such as genetically modified foods, biometric data and animal experimentation, Denham asserted that people need to know how science works in order to make political and ethical choices. "With an understanding of scientific evidence and risk, they're in a position to put appropriate pressure on politicians," he said. "If people have the confidence to engage with new technology, they can drive innovation from below."
Devising ways to train the population to become more innovative and establishing various policies to encourage businesses are all part of the UK's efforts to encourage innovation. In his department's white paper, Denham and his coauthors suggest ways for the UK to become "one of the most attractive places in the world for mobile R&D-intensive businesses to invest." For instance, the UK is launching a new voucher plan in which the government will help pay for England-based companies to forge links with research universities and institutions.
Denham said his visit to AAAS's Washington, D.C., headquarters is part of an effort to learn about science and innovation policy. While in the United States, Denham also planned to visit Boston and the Research Triangle in North Carolina in order to see how research-rich geographic regions develop and sustain themselves. "Proximity breeds trust, helps to disseminate knowledge and keeps innovative organizations close to their primary markets," Denham said. "Research clusters are building blocks for international collaboration."
Expanding upon its six existing "science cities"—in which businesses and S&T universities are in close quarters—the UK plans to develop 20 more such science centers and hopes that those centers will attract international R&D.
Read the March 2008 white paper "Innovation Nation" by the UK Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.
6 May 2008