Government must back researchers, not technology parks
Is anyone keeping a watch on the money being spent on setting up technology parks around this country? Last week we read that £8.2m is being spent on the Thames Innovation Centre in Erith, Kent. Then there was ‘Creative Sheffield’, with a 1.5 million square foot business district and a five-building Sheffield Digital Campus.
Maybe these creative/digital/technology parks will encourage the new businesses they intend to – I don’t know – but the rather limp outcome at the Alba Centre suggests it may not be the case.
But what makes all this spending most troubling is that we are failing at the same time to ensure that valuable research is being funded. I know this cash comes out of quite different pots but how can we have allowed a financial crisis to develop that threatens jobs at universities? If you don’t fund the research work, where are the companies that will fill these technology parks going to come from?
Many Silicon Valley firms started in mom’s garage, a friend’s garden shed or a cheap, windowless office. They didn’t have solar-powered buildings, geothermic heating and intelligent lighting. The point is valuable technology firms will emerge because we back our researchers, not because we have thrown millions at fancy buildings in technology parks.
The Technium technology parks in Wales are a fine set of buildings but I don’t know of a single incubated firm there that is making a technological impact on an international scale. Of course these projects are long-term but then so was the Alba Centre.
The latest funding crisis has emerged at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), where there is an £80m shortfall, which is expected to hit physics and astronomy research.
The STFC oversees the development of a number of large scale research centres as well as funding university researchers. As one researcher said recently, the UK will end up with the finest facilities for science in the world… but empty of scientists.