Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Marconi plc


  There have been substantial and global changes in the business environment during the implementation period of the 1993 White Paper. Perhaps the most important of these changes is the revolution in Information Technology including the impact of the Internet, e-business, and the emergence of a new knowledge-based economy. Consequently it is challenging for industry to identify the specific business-related impact of the White Paper other than through particular initiatives such as the Foresight Programme.

  The White Paper triggered welcome changes in the management and organisation of the science base. People in industry who have worked with the managers of the UK science base for many years have seen a significant and beneficial change of process and culture. For example there is greater dialogue, openness, and desire to have a shared vision of the longer-term objectives for industry and the science base. Specific Research Council initiatives such as the User Panel and Technology Opportunities Panel of EPSRC are to be commended. Research Council publications, "Forward Look" and "Landscape" documents are now excellent guides that allow industry to understand and interact with research programmes. Industry welcomes the increasing number of interdisciplinary programmes, and will encourage further inter-Council programmes.

  Government expenditure through the Research Councils and Funding Councils on the national base of science, engineering and technology (SET), at an annual level of approximately £2 billion in total, is of course substantial. It must be justified, transparent and well managed. After the publication of the 1993 White Paper there were many concerns in the research community that by emphasising "relevance" as well as "excellence", the funding would be moved into near-term business related activities and justified by financial return-on-investment. Fortunately there is no evidence that this dangerous attitude has prevailed. What business and the UK economy needs, and what the 1993 White Paper has influenced, is a national SET community with world-class competencies and an ability to relate to businesses, the economy and the business environment.

  From Marconi plc's viewpoint, the primary measure of performance of the national SET base is the quantity, quality and competencies of graduates and postgraduates from universities; and of course the underpinning competencies of lecturers, researchers and research facilities within universities and the national research base. The national SET base should always be capable of creating the next generation of concepts, rigorous science and innovators. It is above all else, a source of knowledge and a source of expertise.

  Marconi plc believes it is desirable to have within the national science base a more informed understanding of the business environment. Scientific and technological excellence is important, but is just one of the many factors leading to business and economic success. To be successful in today's business world, a company must have in-depth knowledge of its markets and must be able to competitively provide high levels of value and service to its customers. However these markets, customers and competitors are increasingly global and are being transformed by the electronic business revolution. The structure, pace and process of business is radically changing. Businesses and business strategies have become more agile. Global business alliances form and reform rapidly. Shareholder expectations and the financial market demand new levels of business performance.

  Against this backdrop of business revolution, the technology development process is also changing. Businesses like Marconi employ world-class technologists, but the scope and complexity of new product development requires collaboration with world-class research partners. Marconi expects these partners to contribute technological excellence, but they must also have the ability to network and work in teams, often internationally, and understand the business and commercial factors that influence technology selection. The challenge of integrating technological development with business development is fundamental to company success.

  Marconi needs to work with world-class research groups and recruit world-class technologists. Where possible, the groups and individuals should possess team-working skills, business understanding and the other attributes referred to above. Consequently Marconi maintains a good relationship with many university researchers and lecturers to discuss the broader business skills and other desirable attributes. This dialogue is crucial to mutual success, and has greatly improved since the 1993 White Paper. One of the more influential forums for discussion is the Foresight Programme.

  In 1994, this programme commenced with the title "Technology Foresight" and consequently many participants from industry were senior engineers, technologists and scientists. These people generally were familiar with the national science base and the Research Councils. Participants were well chosen to analyse technological matters and the interrelationship between industry's technology needs, opportunities and the science base. However, as discussed above, business success requires a global presence, in-depth market knowledge, in-depth competitor knowledge, insight to investor expectations and insight to employee motivations and expectations.

  These broader business, economic and social factors form an essential bridge between technological success, business success and wealth creation. In retrospect, it seems that although these broader business issues were addressed, many people in industry saw Foresight as a solely technological exercise. It is possible that the Programme would have gained from greater involvement of those in business with skills in marketing, finance, commercial law and personnel for example. Similarly a greater range of academic and science-base disciplines could have been drawn into the studies. Despite these limitations, the first Foresight Programme was a great success in developing dialogue and a shared vision between industry and academe.

  The current Foresight Programme has learned from the first exercise and has a wider range of participants. It is important to stress that from Marconi's viewpoint the Programme must have long-term vision, be global in outlook, and involve a wide community to examine the many drivers of change. Foresight should inform scenario studies and should inform broad areas of policy; it is not about "picking winners".

  A key measure of the impact of the 1993 White Paper is associated with communication and dialogue. This includes the communication between people in the national SET base and people in business. It appears that communication between technologists, in their specialist disciplines, has substantially increased; through the Foresight Programme for example. It is less clear whether the much-needed interdisciplinary communication has increased.


  The Science and Technology Committee refer to the Government's recent consultation on Science and Innovation Strategy. The outline of plans is good, but the plans should recognise the following issues:

  Innovation and competitiveness result from the flow of knowledge and knowledgeable people between the SET base and industry. Knowledgeable people are the most valuable national asset and business asset. Science and Innovation Strategies must therefore relate to the motivation, culture and reward of individuals. The public perception of science, engineering and technology is poor and the number of entrants to a career in SET is declining. Publicity campaigns, for example some excellent individual projects by the British Association for the Advancement of Science or by the professional institutions, are generally too small and inadequately co-ordinated. There is a vital need for a large-scale SET publicity programme to demonstrate nationally, and ideally internationally, the UK's achievements and exciting prospects for a rewarding career.

  The world is rapidly being transformed by the "e-revolution". The SET base needs a strategy to use these new technologies to improve research effectiveness; for example by increasing the efficiency of scientific information processing. The science base must also use these technologies to improve their outreach and partnerships with business. Internet and Grid information systems should be exploited in "virtual networks" for interdisciplinary or inter-institution SET research programmes. These networks should at first be developed locally, as huge, cohesive but distributed "knowledge nodes" equal to, or better than, the largest research institutions in the world. When developed, the powerful national knowledge nodes should be extended internationally.

  UK SET strengths and strategies must be benchmarked against the best international sources. However, it is not enough to compare the contents of one laboratory bench with the contents of another, or to compare the publications and citations of individuals or teams. To assess the economic and social value it is necessary to compare technology exploitation routes and processes. This is a challenging task, and requires a wide range of skills.

  Where possible, higher and further education courses for science, engineering and technology should include a business context or a review of the many factors that bridge technological innovation and economic or social success. Industry needs skilled scientists and engineers, but to be effective in wealth creation they must have additional competencies.

June 2000

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