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Policy and funding

UK Catapults fall short, claims review of technology innovation centres

30 Nov 2017 Michael Banks
Photograph of a manufacturing process
Sparking innovation: Independent review calls for improved management

A network of UK technology innovation centres is not being managed effectively, by both government, and within the individual centres. That is the conclusion of an independent review carried out by Ernst and Young into the Catapult programme, which also finds that the centres remain “overwhelmingly reliant” on public funding. The review recommends delaying the launch of new Catapults until “significant progress” has been made in addressing the issues that are raised by the report.

The Catapult network was created in 2010 when the UK government pledged £500m towards creating a cluster of technology centres designed to foster innovation in local businesses. They are all expected to receive funding from a combination of industry and government sources. So far, 10 centres have been established including the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult (CSAC) and the Energy Systems Catapult. In the UK government’s Industrial Strategy document, which was released on Tuesday, it notes that the Catapults need “to play a growing role in UK innovation”.

Sound, but needs improving

While the Ernst and Young review notes that the concept of the Catapult programme is “sound” and that they have the potential to deliver innovation and economic benefit for the UK, it says that there has been no “single, commonly agreed and consistently communicated purpose statement for Catapults” that has been applied across the network. “Since inception, implementation of the Catapult concept has been inconsistent and could have had a significantly greater impact in delivering innovation, economic benefits and value for money that would have been more consistent with the benefits envisaged when the concept was initiated,” the report notes.

The Catapult programme is managed by the Innovate UK – the government’s innovation agency. Yet the report says that its governance has not been “sufficiently robust” and it has failed to intervene when Catapult centres failed to hit performance targets. The review adds that there is “limited evidence” that the Catapults themselves are well managed and that they are “overwhelmingly reliant” on public funding. However, it does note that the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Satellite Applications Catapult have been “proactive” in identifying news sources of funding.

Liz Flint, chief operations officer of the Cardiff-based CSAC, says that it was not included in the review given that it was only founded last year, but she adds that they will implement the recommendations such as incorporating more measurable and achievable targets. “We are already working with Innovate UK to introduce measures to drive better performance of the network and deliver better outcomes for innovation in the UK, in line with the ambitions of the Government’s Industrial Strategy,” she says. “We look forward to working with government to help commercialise research and drive up productivity.”

Go-to destination for R&D

A spokesperson at the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told Physics World that following five years of operation the timing was right to have a review. “The Catapult network plays an important role in driving innovation and we are ensuring that it is best placed to deliver greater economic benefits across the UK,” says the spokesperson. “The changes we are putting in place will enable the network to deliver against the objectives of our new Industrial Strategy and ensure that the UK remains a go-to destination for research and development. ”

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