The role of science and innovation in post-Brexit - review

12 December 2016

What should the UK’s Industrial Strategy look like? What should be the priorities? Can the UK retain its reputation for talent and research? Could innovation be the silver bullet for the UK’s post-Brexit economy? On 7 December 2016, more than 130 delegates from industry gathered to discuss these issues and celebrate the 90th anniversary of ICI, the former British company that filed more than 33,000 patents and helped create the pharmaceutical, agriscience, and materials sectors.

Paul Drechsler CBE, President of CBI, chaired a panel debate with three leading industrialists that considered how science and innovation have previously contributed to the industrial success of the UK and how they could again in the future.

Drechsler spoke about ICI and its history of successful innovation before commenting on the challenges and opportunities presented by the UK’s vote to leave the EU. He welcomed the government’s commitment to increase spending on R&D but called for it to be raised further to 3% of GDP by 2025.

Sharon Todd, Executive Director of SCI spoke next, asserting the need to strategically rebalance the UK economy away from its reliance on services and showing how the UK had fallen behind in markets such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, while those same markets had grown globally. The government’s Industrial Strategy, she argued, needed to be long-term, have a focus on step-change technologies and commercialising science, and improving the public appreciation of applied science and industry.

Ian Noble, Senior R&D Director at Mondelez and formerly of Unilever, discussed leadership and recruitment of the best people, both now and in the future, saying, ‘We have to aspire to lead and deliver on leadership’.

He was followed by Ian Shott, Managing Partner of Shott Trinova LLP and heavily involved in both Innovate UK and the Chemistry Growth Partnership, who echoed many of the previous comments. He spoke with concern about the rhetoric used by the media and many of government officials but also noted that government was listening to industry bodies; a positive step.

The discussion was opened to the floor and questions were asked on topics such as the UK’s productivity problem, the role of foreign ownership, critical raw materials, teaching of STEM subjects, and priorities for the future. Drechsler observed that the UK government clearly indicated that it recognises the value of talented researchers and workers from the EU, as well as tariff-free access for the chemical industry, although he acknowledged that this might not stop them from trading those things away in negotiations.

One thing was crystal clear from all four speakers and the many guests – the chemical industry and academia must speak with one voice to government to ensure its priorities do not go unheeded. It was also widely agreed that science and industry needed to be better represented in the media, with Ian Noble arguing that ‘we have to tell our own story and tell it well’.

After 90 minutes of stimulating debate, the guests and speakers were able to continue considering the issues with drinks and canapes while viewing an exhibition exploring ICI’s history of innovation, including early examples of Perspex and old footage of operations. The UK needs an industrial strategy that fosters science and innovation, funds research, recruits the best talent, and provides a competitive base for business. It needs to once more bring together scientists of all disciplines with entrepreneurs in an environment that enables invention and success. Both the debate and exhibition made clear that ICI should be an inspiration in pursuit of those goals.

View the exhibition booklet here:

ICI Exhibition Booklet

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