UK: R and D gets short shrift from HMG. (1 of 2)

UK: R and D gets short shrift from HMG. (1 of 2) - The Alvey programme is one of the casualties of the Government's shift in thinking about state subsidised research and development, reports Pallab Ghosh.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Alvey programme is one of the casualties of the Government's shift in thinking about state subsidised research and development, reports Pallab Ghosh.

It was the spring of 1987 and a quite unprecedented optimism filled the halls of an information technology (IT) exhibition in Manchester. Room after room bubbled with laughter and cheerful electronic bleeps. It was as if the circus had come to town: normally restrained researchers were acting like showmen, enticing passers-by into their stalls with the promise of wondrous sights.

The euphoria was due to the successful culmination of the largest national industrial research and development programme every undertaken in the UK - the Alvey programme. It was launched in 1983 by Kenneth Baker, then an up-and-coming young Minister for Information Technology who hailed it as the beginning of a new era in IT in the UK.

The programme was precipitated by the threat posed by a Japanese research initiative into developing a new generation of computers. These would be able to read, speak, hear and even think for themselves. The Alvey programme's aim was to beat the Japanese at their own game.

Baker had won guaranteed funding for the programme for five years and this was only to be the start. He envisaged a 15 or 20-year programme transforming Britain's low-tech, heavy-engineering based economy.

Funding for the next phase of the research initiative would depend on the progress made in the first few years of the programme so it was crucial that it was seen to get off to a good start. The fourth annual conference was the most important because it was at this stage that the Government decided on the level of funding for the next five years.

Conference delegates were waiting expectantly for another rising star in the Government, Kenneth Clarke, then Lord Young's junior at the Department of Trade and Industry. Rumours were buzzing round the conference hall that Clarke would be using his conference address to announce how much Government money would be available for the next phase.

The sound that filled the main conference hall was now no longer a friendly hubbub but a tense clatter that made the atmosphere quite electric. As Mr Clarke took to the podium the noise subsided and everyone in the room was thinking: "Good, he's smiling. It must mean good news." But instead of a bag of money, the avuncular Mr Clarke had brought an axe.

Alvey, he acknowledged, had been a great success. But it was now time for the Government to take a step back and leave industry to take the lead in continuing Alvey's strong start. The programme, he said, smiling cheerily, would not continue in its present form but would become incorporated into a slimmer, trimmer (and less well funded) programme.

This was the first manifestation of a shift in Government thinking towards public sponsorship of industrial R and D. Why should successful businesses such as GEC and ICL have their research subsidised when there were more pressing demands on the public purse? Business people are after all in a better position than civil servants to judge the value of the various technologies on offer at universities.

The argument, though compelling, is brutally simplistic. The purpose of technology transfer programmes is partly to break down some of the barriers between industry and academia, and also to encourage rival companies to collaborate in their research and engage in the type of longer-term projects that would normally be beyond their individual resources.

This idea is well understood by the British pharmaceuticals industry, which 20 years ago was hardly on the map. But by engaging in long-term research, collaborating with universities and using public money, British pharmaceuticals companies are now world ranking.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today