Government should aim Catapults higher says Lords committee

Report recommends changes to funding rules to help innovation centres collaborate with universities and industry

The government needs to remove barriers that are limiting what its nine Catapult innovation centres can contribute to UK research and development (R&D), according to the House of Lords science and technology select committee.

The committee said that rules on funding innovation should be changed to make it easier for Catapult centres to collaborate with universities, as existing rules “often place too much risk on industry in transformative R&D projects,” according to a report published by the committee on 5 February. It added that the centres should be given certainty over their futures through longer-term funding.

The government set up the first Catapults, which are independent non-for-profit innovation centres focused on specific areas of technology, in 2011. They include a Digital Catapult covering technologies including artificial intelligence and 5G networking and a Connected Places Catapult focused on innovation for cities, transport and places.

In July 2020, the government published an ‘R&D Roadmap’ which discussed enhancing collaboration with businesses and repeating a target from 2017 to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of gross domestic product by 2027, compared with 1.7% in 2017.

But the Lords committee said the evidence it received found that the current funding model, with around one-third coming from government grants through Innovate UK and equivalent amounts from industry and from bids to collaborative R&D funds, was “appropriate in theory, but… not necessarily achievable in all cases at present”, particularly for newer Catapults.

Given the expectation that they provide some funding, industry partners can be put off taking part in more risky, transformative projects. “The funding available for innovation in the UK does not appear to be commensurate with the government’s ambitions, as set out in the R&D Roadmap,” the committee said.

The report also said that as part of its current review of the Catapults, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy should give them longer-term certainty over funding with reviews limited to once every five years, matching their funding cycles. It also recommended increasing the scale of the Catapult network, comparing them with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes which have wider scope and deeper links with universities and industry.

PublicTechnology staff

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