The Industrial Strategy: planning for an uncertain future

In November of last year, the government published its White Paper on the Industrial Strategy, called ‘Building a Britain fit for its future’. It is by no means the first such strategy to have been launched in the last 25 years but, unlike many of its predecessors, it does appear to augur a significant shift of economic policy.

Against a backdrop of a UK economy that has been underperforming in many major areas since the financial crisis of the last decade, and with Brexit looming on the horizon, ‘Building a Britain fit for its future’ explicitly acknowledges that the state has a key role to play in steering and coordinating economic activity. For a political party with a strong tradition of free-market philosophy, this in itself is an interesting turn of events. That it also has momentum and backing makes it of great importance to all of us.

This industrial strategy has five foundations, setting out how the government will seek to coordinate policies in pursuit of higher investment and productivity. They are: ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places, and together they represent a roadmap for the country once we exit the European Union.

Universities across the country have taken a long look at the industrial strategy, particularly at the government’s pledge to increase spending on research and development to 2.4 per cent of Gross Domestic Product by 2027, and 3 per cent shortly thereafter. And those higher education institutions that are research intensive, like Plymouth, have also considered carefully where their expertise might address the Grand Challenges that have been set out (and where the majority of the funding will be clustered).

There are clear opportunities for Plymouth here, as we have major research projects under way in each of the four areas of artificial intelligence and data; clean growth (green and low carbon); mobility (electric and driverless vehicles); and our ageing society (health and social care). In AgriTech, for example, we’re working on harvesting robots, artificial soils, and using solar technology to stimulate crop growth. We’re developing significant expertise in cybersecurity, digital and e-health, and marine autonomous systems – already one of the acknowledged strengths of the South Coast Marine Cluster, extending from the Solent to Cornwall. We’re leading the national Offshore Renewable Energy Supergen programme, coordinating the national research effort in this area, and thanks to our investment in medical and dental research, we have a great opportunity to develop a health technology and innovation cluster with our neighbouring Plymouth Science Park and the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust.

There is of course a risk that much of the investment will be concentrated upon a small number of well-placed universities, and that those sectors with well-organised, powerful lobby groups, such as aerospace, will hoover up much of the funding. But this is where the ‘place’ element of the industrial strategy is important. Rather than simply investing in London and the northern powerhouse cities, the government is looking for ‘all places to play their part’. So, for the South West, there is added impetus now to address issues of productivity and investment, and that puts the University in a really interesting position.

In all likelihood, the vast majority of businesses in our region, many of which are SMEs, will not have a detailed understanding of what the industrial strategy means for them, let alone respond to it. Universities such as Plymouth have a real leadership role in this regard, galvanising engagement and being a catalyst for change. In our 2018 Research Festival, we devoted a whole day to the industrial strategy, and we’ll be doing it again next year – and more besides. It is vital that we engage businesses with those key themes of the strategy that match our research strengths, and look to build partnerships with them. We can only achieve so much by ourselves – but we’re ideally positioned, thanks to our already strong links with the SME community, through the engagement work of Enterprise Solutions, and through our facilities such as the Electron Microscopy Centre.

It’s not just about grand challenges and research, of course. There is a major focus upon technical education, and STEM subjects, T-Levels and technology pathways. The point we have always made, which maybe has been overlooked in the drafting of the strategy, is that universities like Plymouth do already deliver an education that is technically minded. We produce graduates that not only have an academic understanding of their subject area but also have the technical ability to apply that in the workplace. We are also committed to degree apprenticeships, which see us working with businesses to address their workforce development needs.

We are a university that, through its cultural heritage, has a link with the industries of the region. From the School of Navigation in 1862 to the present day, where we are very much aligned to a model that has been termed ‘the Civic University’, we are both local and global in our outlook and ambition. The Industrial Strategy, in many ways, reinforces the sense of who we are and what we’ve always been. 

Now it is up to us to take that story forward.

Professor Jerry Roberts is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research and Enterprise. Adrian Dawson is Director of Research and Innovation.