Peter Jones: will lacking to drive invention

HISTORY proves the UK has no shortage of successful inventors, we simply lack the will to back their ideas, writes Peter Jones.

Britain's dominance at sea is down to a Yorkshire clockmaker, who solved the problem of tracking a ship's longitude. Picture: Getty
Britain's dominance at sea is down to a Yorkshire clockmaker, who solved the problem of tracking a ship's longitude. Picture: Getty

What to do to get the economy firing on all cylinders again? A brilliant new discovery that leads to a big new industry, or a significant improvement to an existing industry – that would surely help. Well, there is plenty evidence that Britain has the capacity to make such discoveries but the troubling issue is whether finance and industry are capable of mobilising themselves if such an innovation comes along.

I’ll illustrate what I mean by this later – the worrying lack of interest by British industry in a British-devised substance which some reckon could revolutionise the 21st century – but the context of this is important.

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David Cameron clearly thinks that innovation is a significant economic driver.

Earlier this summer, he announced an unusual initiative, a £1 million prize fund to pay for research into something judged to be the problem which most needs urgent solution, and resolution of which, is likely to lead to significant economic benefits.

Mr Cameron likened his idea to that of the longitude prize, put up three centuries ago to solve the outstanding problem of determining where a ship was at sea. Working out how far the ship was from the equator – its latitude – was a simple exercise of using a sextant to find out how high the sun was above the horizon at noon and comparing the resultant angle with values in a table.

But there was no such simple method for determining longitude or distance around the globe (only a very laborious one involving the moon), making navigation largely guesswork and leading to a lot of shipwrecks.

The principle of a simple means was known, using a clock set to a time at a point of origin, but no clock had been made which could stand up to the pitching and rolling of a ship.

So in 1714, the British government offered prizes of up to £20,000 (about £3m in today’s money) to anyone who could build such a clock.

Famously, John Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter and part-time clockmaker produced by the 1750s, not just a clock, but a rather more nautically useful watch that did the job.

Mr Harrison wasn’t the only one to tackle the problem, others abroad also did so, but he was first to the solution. It played a big role in the British Navy’s domination of the oceans and the creation of the British Empire, a pretty impressive economic result.

I doubt that Mr Cameron is a closet imperialist, but I do believe that he wants to see a lot more of Mr Harrison’s problem-solving inventiveness, hopefully working a lot faster.

“There are so many problems in our world that need that amazing solution, whether it is a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon free,” he said, announcing the prize.

His government also thinks that these are lots of bright ideas in universities which could be turned into businesses. It set up a review of the relationship between higher education and industry under Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline and chancellor of Nottingham University.

Sir Andrew’s recently-published interim report declared: “Universities generating cutting edge research and resulting insights may be likened to the tip of an arrow, with the arrowhead behind it representing the economic activity enabled by research-led innovation. Maximising the size of these arrowheads and their economic benefit to the UK, specifically, is fundamental to both sectoral and local growth strategies.”

Stirring stuff, and also familiar stuff. Two decades ago, Crawford Beveridge, then the thrusting new chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, launched an inquiry into the commercialisation of Scottish university research. It produced some changes and universities are now better at turning bright ideas into businesses. But the much hoped for quantum leap, the birth of a Scottish Microsoft or the adoption of a game-changing technology by an existing firm, has yet to occur.

And, though I wish Sir Andrew Witty every success, I suspect he will find he has an elusive task. The sad probability is that the big new game-changing technology has already emerged, and the opportunity for Britain to cash in on it may be gone already.

Take a pencil and draw a line on a piece of paper. Some of the graphite making up the pencil lead will probably be deposited on the paper in the form of graphene – a layer of carbon just one atom thick. It’s been known about for some time and that it has unusual properties, but it wasn’t until 2004 that two Russian-born scientists at Manchester University managed to produce stable sheets of it.

For producing what is in effect the world’s first two-dimensional material, they won the Nobel prize in physics. The potential applications are enormous – electronic components that are ultra-fast and ultra-small, flexible touch screens, cheap and super-efficient solar power cells, all-carbon light emitting diodes, and as a means of power storage.

Graphene can also be layered with other materials to produce very light and strong composite materials which could make cars and aeroplanes much lighter, reducing their fuel usage. Manchester University’s graphene website proudly states that its scientists have “routinely set records with the superlative properties of graphene” and that its real-world applications “hold tremendous implications in promoting and strengthening UK-based 21st century industry.”

Actually, the world’s industries see the tremendous implications and thousands of patents have been registered. Earlier this year, CambridgeIP, a patent consultancy, reported that Chinese companies had filed 2,204 patents, just ahead of the US with 1,754. In third place was South Korea with 1,160, many of them held by one company, Samsung.

And where was Britain? Well down the league with just 54 patents. There are a number of reasons for that, one being that the UK does not have electronics giants such as IBM, which holds 134 patents. British companies spend, relative to international competitors, poorly on the kind of research which is needed to turn a material like graphene into a commercial product.

This is also true in Scotland and why efforts to capitalise on first-class Scottish university research have not been a great success. It looks as though this is also a British problem and it is boosting British manufacturing which Mr Cameron needs to focus on, for the research capacity is clearly way greater than can be absorbed by the industrial economy.