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Better late than never

Posted 21/11/2012 by cgodfrey

The UK needs an industrial policy – and at the heart of that policy should be the chemical industry; so said David ‘Two brains’ Willetts at the annual dinner of the UK Chemical Industries Association last week. Willetts, the minister for universities and science, was fulsome in his praise for the UK chemical industry’s performance, emphasising the need for the UK to have a strong chemical industry.

And in the manner of that well-known joke introduction, he said he was from the government and here to help.

Now the industry has heard that many times before, but perhaps this time it might be true. Certainly the last couple of weeks have seen a number of government announcements about funding for science and science-based companies, and Willetts was at pains to emphasise that the UK government has ring-fenced its science budget.

But it was regarding the need for an industrial policy that he focused his remarks, noting that there were lessons to be learned from the 19th century, when UK scientists were making major strides in the field of chemistry but there was failure to capitalise on their discoveries.

It was in Germany, where the environment was much more conducive to the development part of R&D, that these discoveries were turned into commercial successes.

Willetts emphasised that it was German chemical companies that created in-house R&D, and because they needed trained scientists, they established strong links with German universities, playing a major role in the establishment of technical universities, and also with the German government of the time.

The pursuit of these well-established relationships, coupled with systematic investment in R&D, has produced the success that German chemical companies continue to enjoy today.

So is it too late for the UK to learn the lessons from well over 100 years ago? There was an attempt some years ago to establish some sort of policy to aid the development of select ‘hi tech’ industries, including the chemical sector, through the establishment of Innovation & Growth Teams, but what has happened since then?

As Willetts emphasised, business and government need to talk and he said that he is looking forward to seeing the recommendations that are currently being produced by the UK chemical industry under the direction of the CIA and which he hopes to be able to incorporate into a new industrial policy.

But why has this process taken so long to come to some form of fruition? And will this new industrial policy go the same way as the much lauded UK energy policy, which appears to become more fractured as the days go by? Why not have your say here?

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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