Sandy Finlayson: Speed of human development has come with high cost to the planet

It is believed that mankind first emerged from the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya about 180,000 years ago. It took us about 175,000 years to discover the wheel and the written word (possibly two of our greatest inventions) in ancient Mesopotamia. It took another 4,750 years to harness steam which powered the Industrial Revolution.


Within the past 150 years we have learned to take mains electricity, clean running water and sanitation for granted, to travel by car, train and plane, and to communicate by radio and phone.

We have nearly doubled our expected life span over the past century, we have conquered many diseases which were big killers in previous generations, and we are making great headway in treating diseases such as cancer, which were previously considered to be non-treatable.

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However, this huge acceleration in human development has come at a huge cost as more than ever before we recognise the increasing threat from impactive issues such as climate change.

We know that the world’s population is likely to peak at about 10 billion by around 2050 and we are going to come under increasing pressure to provide for all of these people. Consequently, we have many challenges ahead of us. Climate Change is fast becoming an emergency. Dealing with it will have a knock-on consequence across every other area of human activity. Knowledge is now being shared on a scale which would have been unimaginable to our forebears and vast amounts of resource are being directed at addressing these issues.

We are very fortunate in Scotland to have 18 universities engaged in teaching and research to provide the bright and innovative people on whom we are going to have to rely to solve these various challenges. Most university research is publicly funded and those who provide the research funding are increasingly trying to ensure that such research provides ‘value for money’.

This is impossible to quantify in the case of ‘fundamental research’ which almost by definition will end up at an unknown destination, but applied research should have some sort of end goal.

Mariana Mazzucato, a Professor in Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London makes a vital distinction between ‘value creation’ and ‘value extraction’. If a research collaboration between a university and an industry partner does not recover the ‘full economic cost’, it may mean that the university is carrying out the research at an overall loss. However, if the university is itself a participant in a successful collaboration with a spinout company which it has had a hand in creating, it will participate along with the other shareholders in the value which is created from the project.

Such companies create other spin-off benefits to the Scottish economy by anchoring more high value, private sector tax paying jobs here in Scotland, as distinct from an industrial collaboration with a global company, from which the benefits immediately flow out of Scotland. Each direct job created in a spin-off company will create further indirect jobs in the supply chain.

We have much to learn from experience elsewhere. For example, I understand that a recent study of the living alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) indicated that they have between them started 6,900 companies with global sales of approximately $164 billion and Stanford alumni have started about 18,000 companies with global sales of about $1.27 trillion.

Closer to home, companies in the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of London, Cambridge and Oxford have created numerous successful companies although not quite on this scale. However, they do show what a transformative effect an academic institution can have on a local or regional economy.

Converge works tirelessly with all of our universities to help to identify the very best of our potential spin-out companies working across all sectors. Since the programme started ten years ago, we have seen both the number and quality of applications increasing year on year which is very heartening. Many companies which have been through our programme have gone on to raise very substantial amounts of investment and to employ substantial numbers of people.

It is really encouraging to see just how aware our researchers are of the problems which confront us both at a national and at a global level, whether they relate to climate change, clean water, food supply, healthy ageing or any of the other issues which we must confront today to ensure that those who follow us tomorrow can all look forward to a better future.

Sandy Finlayson, Chairman,