UK Economy, Science And Innovation To The Rescue – Lessons For African Union

British or UK Economy


“In these tough economic times for our world we look to science to provide new solutions, new technologies, new opportunities to further our common goals” (STFC, 2011).


This statement was made by Rt Hon Gordon brown who was Prime minister of the United kingdom from 2007 to 2010.

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In the vision document of the UK’s Science and Technology Facility Council (STFC), the need for science and technological innovations to drive the economy has been clearly articulated.  The World Wide Web, medical imaging, gene technology, clean energy, life-prolonging drug delivery systems, and improved security devices were all once ‘things that never were’. They were dreamt of, and then turned into reality. The UK needs to turn more dreams into realities if it is to remain economically competitive globally and thus be able to afford to maintain high standard of living and high social values. The UK is not a low cost economy based on extractive industries or cheap labour. To compete they need to innovate (STFC, 2011).


Recently, the UK’s economy entered recession. Moreover, the world at large faces perhaps the most challenging financial and economic situation for half a century, placing even further pressure upon our collective ability to address long term global challenges such as climate change, hunger, poverty and disease, and the insecurity and uncertainty they breed. Now, more than ever, the world needs the solutions that science and technology can offer (STFC, 2011).


The interlinked challenges of the 21st century such as: energy, global climate, health, security concerns, etc, demand scientific and technical innovation. Successful innovation depends on the highest quality research facilities and new ways of bringing technology and applications together between industry and academia (STFC, 2011).


The UK needs to use the prodigious talents, knowledge and curiosity of their scientists and engineers to encourage innovation, and thus help build a more sustainable economy, able to recover rapidly from slowdowns of the kind currently being experienced, and move forward robustly to address the global challenges humankind faces over the next 20 years and beyond (STFC, 2011).


The Rt. Hon. David Willetts, the UK Minister for Science and Universities visited China in June 2011 to reinforce the position of UK and China as partners for growth through science and education. During his visit the Minister co-chaired the 6th Meeting of Sino–UK Joint Commission on Science and Innovation Cooperation alongside Minister WAN Gang, Chinese Minister for Science and Technology. He also met with Vice President LI Jia Yang of the Chinese Academy of Science to discuss research collaboration and highlight opportunities for future collaboration, and with Vice Minister HAO Ping of the Ministry of Education to further strengthen educational cooperation, particularly in higher education and research (STFPC, 2011). This shows the importance that the British government attaches to the use of technology to enhance economic growth.


Whether through power supply, sensors, invisibly embedded systems, lasers or displays, the Key Technology Area (KTA) of Electronics, Photonics and Electrical Systems (EPES) underpins activity in all industrial sectors and throughout the consumer market. Global markets for electricity ($1.2 trillion), electronic products ($2.0 trillion) and photonics products ($0.6 trillion) all continue to expand strongly (TSB, 2011). $260 billion of this is accounted for by semiconductors, with 900 million transistors being produced every year for every man, woman, and child on Earth (TSB, 2011). The UK is well placed to profit from these markets, as it benefits from a strong science base and a long tradition of inventiveness in the uses of electricity and light. The UK economy at a glance shows that it has benefited immensely from its technology base. For example, Electronics, Photonics and Electrical Systems (EPES) manufacturing employs more than 330,000 people in 14,000 UK businesses, with £42 billion turnover (TSB, 2011). This is 10% of UK manufacturing industry (TSB, 2011). EPES distribution, wholesaling and retail adds £73 billion and electricity transmission and distribution a further £55 billion (TSB, 2011). The value added by these activities totals 4% of GDP, with telecommunications adding a further 2%, and EPES technology underpins activity throughout the remainder of the economy (TSB, 2011). The UK boasts nearly a third of Europe’s silicon design companies three times as many as either France or Germany (TSB, 2011). The Technology Strategy Board recognizes the importance of these technologies to the UK economy, and will continue to champion a sector that received over £114 million of investment from the Technology Programme during 2004-2008 (TSB, 2011). The economic benefits (the goal of the UK’s EPES strategy) can be achieved by developing ideas from the science base into industrially relevant new EPES technologies, and onwards to become products in the marketplace; but they can also be achieved by the adoption of existing technologies into new applications in the healthcare, transport, energy, retail and environmental sectors (TSB, 2011). This benefits both the technology providers in the device industries and the technology adopters in the end-use markets.


This UK strategy has identified five technology pillars for investment, where Technology Strategy Board involvement will have a significant and lasting impact on the UK economy (TSB, 2011): Control systems and power engineering, Plastic and printed electronics, Data and image acquisition, Communications, Systems design and integration. These technology pillars all make use of embedded systems. Hence design and development of embedded systems technologies will provide a platform for a lasting impact on the economy of UK.


The fifth annual Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014 report for 2009, published November 30th 2009 by the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS), outlines the latest achievements that have enabled the UK to become a world leader in research and emerge as a powerhouse for innovation (InnovationUk, 2009). The then Minister for Science and Innovation Lord Drayson welcomed the report’s positive findings.  “The evidence is clear – record levels of investment have helped us to build a world-class, sustainable research base,” he says. “However, we need to maintain this progress and continue to invest in talent, science and innovation. Our future depends on it.” The UK remains second only to US in worldwide scientific excellence, despite increasing competition from other countries. It is also the most efficient and productive nation for research in the G8 (InnovationUk, 2009).

The economic importance of technology and innovation is great since, according to Mokyr: “The difference between rich nations and poor nations is not […] that the rich have more money than the poor, but that rich nations produce more goods and services (Panayotis, 2004). One reason they can do so is because their technology is better; that is, their ability to control and manipulate nature and people for productive ends is superior” (Mokyr, 1990).  If Western Europe has been superior, in terms of economic growth, compared to most of the Central-Eastern and Former Soviet Union (F.S.U.) countries, this is undoubtedly, at least partly, due to its technological superiority (Panayotis, 2004).

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