Select Committee on Science and Technology Fifth Report


1.  Members of the Sub-Committee visited AWM, the Regional Development Agency responsible for the West Midlands, at Birmingham on 29 January 2003. The purpose of the visit was to see at first hand the way that RDAs interact with regional partners on the ground.

2.  The visiting party consisted of Lord Patel (Chairman of the Inquiry), Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Lord Methuen and Lord Thomas of Macclesfield. They were supported by the Specialist Adviser to the Inquiry (Dr Marilyn Wedgwood), Clerk (Mr Roger Morgan) and Assistant Clerk (Mr Gordon Baker).

Introductory briefings

3.  The party was welcomed to AWM's headquarters in Birmingham by the Chief Executive of AWM (Mr John Edwards). He and two AWM Board Members (Professor Kumar Bhattacharya[62] and Mr Norman Price), several senior executives of AWM and members of AWM's Regional Innovation Strategy Steering Group gave presentations on AWM's strategy and activities[63]. The following were among the principal points made.

a.  AWM covered the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire. This was a diverse area of 13,000 square kilometres, with a population of 5.27 million and a GDP of over £60 billion. Much of the Government funding inherited by AWM on the establishment of RDAs in 1999 had been committed to various regeneration priorities. With the ending of those commitments plus the aggregation of separate budgets into a "single pot", the Agency (whose budget for 2002/03 was £192.2 million) now had more scope and flexibility to tackle innovation strategy. EU funding could play an important part in this and was being actively pursued through AWM's representation in Brussels.

b.  AWM's role was to take the lead in developing a diverse and dynamic business base, promoting learning and skills, creating conditions for growth and regenerating communities. The fundamental objective was to create more and better jobs and better quality of life in the West Midlands. The Agency did not, of course, act in isolation. Its aim was to be a catalyst: bringing together leaders of business and HE; carrying out market research; providing substantial seed corn funding; stimulating investment; and generating a new sense of regional commitment, collaboration and confidence in seizing economic opportunities. Its strength lay in local knowledge and commitment and in being business-led.

c.  The region's strength had been built on vocational skills, but graduate retention had been below average. Science was an economic driver and AWM saw it as an important means of achieving its strategy, both through research generating new products and processes and by enriching the regional skills base. It was important to increase scientific awareness in the industrial and financial communities. Science could find new applications for traditional industries, as well as generating completely new business opportunities. But cultures needed to change: many businesses were relatively risk-averse while academic traditions tended to prize scientific endeavour for its own sake, rather than for its commercial potential.

d.  Three high technology corridors had been identified for cluster development based on centres of excellence in universities, research establishments and both traditional and new industries. AWM's strategic priorities were nanotechnology, polymers, photonics, medical sciences, advanced engineering, transport design, ICT, e-learning, microsystems commercialisation and developing space for new high technology business.

e.  Five traditional business sectors were targeted for concentration: transport and building technologies, food and drink, tourism and leisure and high-value consumer products. The new target sectors were specialised business services, information and communications technologies and environmental technologies. AWM also saw scope for developing interactive media for education and entertainment and new medical technologies derived from the ownership of IP by NHS trusts.

f.  The "Spinner" project was designed to help local universities and business exploit patenting and IP opportunities and provide start-up capital for new technologies. Other AWM schemes also helped to generate start-up capital. However, in the current economic climate, SMEs had difficulty in finding enough finance to carry higher technology projects through to the point where commercial viability could be demonstrated and longer-term financial backing secured. More long-term funding was needed.

g.  English regions and their institutions had traditionally tended to compete with one another for funds, commercial advantage and attention. However, AWM felt that dialogue and information-sharing within and between regions was improving. RDAs realised that a more co-operative approach could avoid duplicating effort or missing opportunities, and create synergies.

h.  AWM was actively promoting the rapid improvement of broadband connectivity throughout the region. The region's road and rail infrastructure were also a serious constraint on development, but AWM was able only to lobby about the inadequacies.

Automotive Research

4.  Mr David Blake, AWM's Acting Director of Business Growth, Dr Alan Curtis of the Warwick Manufacturing Group and Mr Barry Webb of Land Rover briefed the visiting party on progress towards establishing a new Premium Automotive Research Centre for the Region[64]. If the West Midlands was to retain a stake in car manufacture, it was clear that new skills and techniques would be required as new materials were introduced, particularly at the premium end of the market.

5.  AWM saw the initiative as a good example of an RDA's role as a facilitator, in this case by linking regional university-based research with local automotive manufacturers and their suppliers. Each of the partners was planning a substantial investment in the centre, aiming also to leverage other funds for particular projects. Apart from the intrinsic value, AWM expected to see wider economic and social benefits as the Centre's impact was felt throughout the supply chain.

HE perspectives

6.  The Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, Professor Michael Sterling, kindly hosted a working lunch at the University to enable the visiting party to meet senior figures involved in the region's HE[65]. Among the key points made were the following.

a.  The HE community in the region was already feeling the benefit of AWM's work and valuable partnerships had been formed. In particular, AWM's high technology corridor concept had much to offer universities and research centres. However, research could not be confined regionally. Indeed, even within the region, the corridors tended to be knowledge-based, rather than strictly geographical.

b.  Shortage of university funds left little scope for long-term investment. This made partnerships with business difficult to broker, especially when smaller businesses had little money to contribute. RDAs should explore more imaginative solutions, such as helping to create strategic joint posts where graduate researchers could divide their time between working for business and pursuing research for higher degrees.

c.  Undergraduate engineering courses lacked an effective national strategy. Although this was a national issue, RDAs might help to advise the Government on how course re-structuring could make science and engineering students more aware of entrepreneurial culture and commercial possibilities.

d.  Universities should work with RDAs to remedy the shortage of managers capable of running joint cluster projects. RDAs could also help to make secondary science education more interesting and relevant to the business environment.

e.  RDAs had useful autonomy to pursue business-led strategies. If and when they became answerable to Regional Assemblies, care would be needed to avoid politicisation of RDA strategies.


7.  After lunch, the visiting party toured Birmingham University's Nanotechnology Centre and was briefed on its work by Professor Graham Davies and his colleagues. Because of its significance in the region and beyond, AWM was actively involved in supporting the Centre and extending its reach further.

8.  Given the regional strengths, AWM was also working closely with the Centre and others (including other RDAs) in the bid for the Centre to accommodate the Government's proposed National Microsystems and Nanotechnology Manufacturing Centre. While being a national resource, that development would be of great significance for the region.

Learning and Skills

9.  Finally, the visiting party met representatives of further and higher education establishments and other relevant regional organisations to discuss the skills needed to support the emerging cluster and technology areas. They welcomed AWM's support of initiatives (articulated in the required FRESA) to develop learning and skills and make the culture of HE more receptive to entrepreneurship.

10.  It was hoped that RDAs might do more, in partnership with others, to address the shortage of science and engineering students. Effective action on this needed also to include pre-16 education in which RDAs had no formal role.


11.  Members endorsed the Chairman's thanks to AWM for hosting the visit, and to all those involved in the various sessions which had been very helpful in clarifying the issues to be addressed in the Inquiry.

62   Knighted in the Birthday Honours 2003. Back

63   AWM subsequently submitted written material to the Inquiry and, on 4 March 2003, also gave oral evidence (see pages 24, 49 and 65 of Volume II). Back

64   The "International Automotive Research Centre" was formally announced on 2 April 2003, see the supplementary memorandum from AWM on page 65 of Volume II. Back

65   Many of those present were members of the West Midlands Higher Education Association which subsequently submitted written evidence to the Inquiry (see page 347 of Volume II). Back

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