In this country, we think that we’re good at inventing things, but bad at commercialising them.
The first bit of this is true – when it comes to science, Britain really does punch above its weight. However, the defeatist notion that we always allow other countries to make money out of our discoveries is less valid. For instance, in the 1950s the structure of DNA was unravelled by researchers in Cambridge – and today the town is the epicentre of Britain’s world-leading life sciences industry. There are many other examples in areas from big data to small satellites.
Furthermore, British government policy now steers a sensible course between the extremes of laissez faire and ‘picking winners’ – intervening where there is a clear strategic rationale (as when George Osborne provided rapid-response funding to keep Britain at the centre of graphene research).
For an example of a country that has really has failed to capitalise on its scientific prowess, we should look at Russia, not Britain. This is the subject of a fascinating article by Leon Neyfakh for the Boston Globe, in which the science historian Loren Graham is interviewed:
“Russian scientists have been responsible for some of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century. Among their achievements, they invented lasers, did pioneering work on computers, and even came up with the idea of fracking—all of which were later developed and commercialized in other nations.
“The ongoing inability to turn ideas into commerce has proved to be a profound problem for Russia—and ultimately for the rest of the world as well. The longer this massive nuclear power is economically dominated by resource oligarchs, rather than a stable, independent business sector, the longer the developed world will have to put up with it throwing its geopolitical weight around in unpredictable ways.”
Graham blames this failure on political and cultural factors:
“The political leadership fears strong entrepreneurs who get rich because they fear that they’ll be competitors…
“I often heard Russian scientists say, you know, ‘All my good ideas get robbed! You Westerners steal them from us!’ But there is, in the Russian scientific community, the belief that business is dirty. And that you should not demean yourself by stepping out of the world of ideas…and in Russia this is reinforced by the fact that there is a lot of corruption and so, to go into business is, in an intellectual’s mind, the same as getting into the dirty realm of crime, corruption, and wheeling and dealing.”
However, both politics and culture can change – as when Margaret Thatcher transformed the anti-entrepreneurial climate that had done so much damage to 20th century Britain. Russia’s problem is that it is ruled by an elite that can get by on oil and gas revenues – and therefore hasn’t felt the need for change.
“There are people in Russia who say—it’s a hyperbole but it’s a fair statement—that Russia’s just Saudi Arabia with nuclear weapons. Russia, right now, despite 300 years of trying to industrialize and modernize, it’s an economy that’s primarily based on oil and gas.”
The fall in oil prices may force a rethink – just as the financial crisis forced British politicians to think about rebalancing the UK economy. Indeed, just about the worst thing that can happen to a country’s ability to innovate is a major source of ‘easy wealth’.
Natural resources like oil are one kind of easy wealth, but there are other kinds – such as that derived from property speculation. With our North Sea reserves now in decline, it is the latter that is the most relevant to the British economy.
In the last five years, UK landlords have made a profit of £177 billion just from rising property prices: a vast increase in wealth that required very little in the way genuine innovation and zero application of scientific endeavour.
Given the amount of money there’s to be made from exploiting the British nexus of artificially low interest rates, bank bailouts, planning policy failures, tax perks and the housing benefit gravy train, it’s a wonder anyone invests in British innovation at all.