Why Northern Ireland Needs To Be Innovative When It Comes To Research and Development

Arlene Foster, as minister with responsibility for encouraging economic development, is consulting on the merits of a new aspect of policy, which focuses directly on seeking a more innovative approach by businesses to their long-term development.

Her department has published a draft Innovation Strategy ‘that aims to stimulate research and development (R&D), innovation and creativity across the economy’.

However, creating a defined separate innovation strategy, distinct from R&D, is difficult conceptually and in practical terms.

Northern Ireland’s performance, linking innovation, creativity and R&D, is sometimes assessed as poor and/or inadequate.

The easiest yardstick to measure the performance is the annual estimate of the level of R&D spending as a proportion of local GVA. Across the EU there is a target that R&D spending might reach 3% of GVA. The UK falls short of that target and, unhappily, Northern Ireland lags behind the UK figures with R&D being only 1.9% of GVA.

The consultative paper outlines an identified innovation strategy pointing to a number of constructive ideas. The challenge of the innovation concept is whether this is creating an artificial division for what should be seen as a wider indivisible process.

The 50 page draft innovation strategy invites support for the development of policy, first, by identifying methods of generating knowledge relevant to innovation activity. Then, second, it explores ideas to encourage the exchange of relevant knowledge to better inform interested users.

This is followed by a third step seeking to encourage the successful exploitation of key parts of the knowledge base. Finally, the draft strategy points to the value of (and need for) a cultural change in attitudes and behaviour towards enhanced innovation.

The four steps to identify an innovation strategy are carefully developed in more detail and, emerging from the wider discussion, 16 key actions are proposed. Each of the actions has value and merits a place in the wider economic development strategy. Arguably, all of them can be better assessed against a back-drop of innovation linked to R&D rather than as stand-alone suggestions.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) recognises the continuum that links creativity, enterprise, R&D and innovation. In setting the vision for innovation, DETI refers to Northern Ireland languishing at the bottom of ‘just about every UK league table on innovation’. This leads into an acknowledgement that ‘R&D is only one part of innovation’ and extends the argument to suggest replication to ‘other areas of innovation across all sorts of sectors within the region’.

Only if the innovation strategy is understood as a wide ranging topic can it be interpreted as including some of the 16 key actions such as:

  • Prioritising R&D funding towards identified opportunities;
  • Developing a foresight programme for new and emerging technologies;
  • Investing in industry-led collaborative networks and collaboration with academia;
  • Steps to secure funding of at least €100m (£84.6m) from the EU Horizon programme;
  • Supporting the expansion of the Science Park;
  • Appointing a chief scientific advisor for Northern Ireland;
  • Establishing an Innovation Council and developing an innovation communications strategy.

The range of actions emerging from the draft innovation strategy has the undoubted merit that, when implemented, there will be large potential gains for the economy. To that extent, this has segmented ideas that can now attract greater support.

There are other levers that might be applied to generate greater local development. The EU Barroso taskforce might be invoked to give stronger access to the Horizon programme. Also, placing emphasis on the positive linkage of the corporate tax system with R&D and Black Box developments merits a strong claim.

As an adjunct of this fresh thinking, the minister might also develop a broader base for the operation of the R&D and Innovation voucher schemes.

They overlap and, with common purpose, have the potential to encourage firms to focus on more knowledge intensive activities.

Source: belfasttelegraph.co.uk