This week’s Nature has an interesting essay by David Edgerton as part of their series on innovation (unfortunately you need a subscription to access the full article. but there is an editor’s summary available for free). The basic thrust of the essay is that national investment in research is not related to the national capacity for innovation, because the knowledge generated by publicly funded research is available globally. The output of R&D is the raw material of innovation, but can be relatively easily sourced globally rather than locally. Fairly obvious stuff really, but, as the essay points out, this is not always reflected in innovation policies. For example, Innovation Nation, the UK Government’s innovation policy, promises that the Government will “…maintain the growing investment in UK science…” as a key part of the strategy to boost national innovation.
Of course, there is an obvious risk here. If Governments across the globe all decide to rely on importing knowledge rather than generating it at home, the globally supply would soon dry up. But this ignores the real value of locally carried out R&D; the skilled people generated by a vibrant research environment. Although people can also move around the world, the barriers to movement are much higher than for knowledge, so a country that wants to be innovative needs to make sure that is has a good supply of people with the right skills. The way in which dynamic and innovative science parks grow up around world leading research universities provides compelling evidence of the importance of appropriately skilled people ‘on the ground’.
On this basis, the real value of national investment in research is the people involved, not the knowledge generated. This has a profound implication for research policy. Research funding needs to be targeted at generating people with the right skills, rather than at highly directed innovation targets. If public research is targeted, then better to address public policy challenges where the most important impacts are on national policy-making rather than innovation. And measuring the value of public research investment would be better focussed on human rather than financial capital.