How the state is a roadblock to progress

Red tape-obsessed, visionless governments are holding back the kind of big and risky innovation society needs.

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

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Portcullis House is a £235million high-security extension to the Palace of Westminster, providing office accommodation for 210 members of parliament. Opened in 2001, the building has a number of interesting features, including two shallow internal lakes. Unfortunately, this twenty-first century home for our parliamentarians has no wifi facilities. Such an omission may be indicative of the political class’s approach to technology.

On Tuesday this week, the Royal Society of Chemistry made the first ever live webcast from the House of Commons, on Science and the General Election. The minister for science and innovation, Lord Paul Drayson – millionaire creator of the Scoople (a scoop-shaped crisp) and much else besides – was there representing the government. He argued that science is central to economic recovery. His shadow, the dapper Conservative MP for Windsor, Adam Afriyie, argued that only the Tories can get the UK out of today’s economic hole and preserve science from cuts. Finally, the Liberal Democrat MP and medic, Dr Evan Harris, insisted that the Treasury needs to have its own chief scientific adviser if it is ever to grasp that spending on science and technology needs to be ring-fenced over the long term, and cannot be made contingent on booms and slumps.

Sadly, the House of Commons has seen just two similar debates in the past decade and there is virtually no electoral discussion on the wider politics of innovation, despite the fact that two important reports have just come out on innovation and UK plc (read them here and here). Worse, skirmishes on the issue combine both the deification of scientists as political advisers and the reduction of science policy to the crude spreadsheets of international economic performance – ‘comparative advantage’, as Drayson termed it.

Science is rarely seen as a positive end in itself. The New Scientism, which deifies science and makes it the chief arbiter of public policy (on climate change, obesity, alcohol, smoking and so on), is alive and corrosive. Alongside this, the recession has reinforced the view that both British science and science education at secondary and higher levels should be treated as purely economic matters: as either good, but in need of efficiency cuts (Drayson), or as very good and not deserving of cuts (everyone else). These two prejudices about science, and the reluctance to give science free rein on its own account, leads to a policy outlook that always wants to control science, and in particular to subject the broader process of technological innovation to the dead hand of regulation.

The panic about climate change has done much to make the regulation of innovation seem not just necessary, but positively desirable. In a little noticed speech on ‘Red-Green renewal’, delivered back in 2006, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, went so far as to say that mandatory tradable emissions standards for car manufacturers, tougher energy ratings for products, and ‘regulating out of existence high polluting electrical equipment and household appliances’ should be ‘a new mission for the EU’.

Here, regulation is seen as a force for innovation. This was confirmed in the Labour government’s 2008 White Paper Innovation Nation, which saw regulation, alongside public procurement and public services, as able to ‘shape the market’ for innovations. Here, capitalism was guilty only of market failure. As a result, then, the British state must ride to the rescue and lend its full experience and dynamism to the business of making new products, new services and new processes.

This conception was silly. Genuine innovation, of the sort that can create whole new industries, knows few rules, so regulation is unlikely to accelerate it. Still, in those days, there was a ministry called the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and there was at least a nod to the idea that regulation can hinder innovation. In 2007, the government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority finally, and with enormous generosity, allowed women to donate eggs for genetic research, and in 2009 Britain’s most esteemed scientific body, the Royal Society, put in a word for genetically modified foods.

But right now it’s hard to detect, in elite circles, real enthusiasm for innovation. At Portcullis House, Evan Harris made much of his hostility to restraints on research in stem cells. Yet at the same time, he agreed that Britain should concentrate its space research on satellites – and, in classic style, went out of his way to denounce manned space flight as an expensive kind of glamour.

In fact, state restraints on innovation are now as fashionable as the regulation of financial services. In America, a newly elected President Obama only offered a modest, cautious relaxation of George W Bush’s policies against stem cell research. In India last month, Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, banned what would have been his country’s first GM vegetable crop, a variety of aubergine; indeed five or six years may have to pass before a laboratory is built to check its ‘biosafety’.

Just recently the European Commission gave its first approval to a genetically modified crop, BASF’s GM Amflora starch potato, which the EU concedes ‘helps to optimise the production process and to save raw materials, energy, water and oil-based chemicals’ in industrial applications. Nevertheless, it has taken almost 14 years of bureaucratic entanglement and billions of Euros in lawyers’ fees for the crop to pass muster with the Brussels bureaucracy. And all this for a plant that is not even destined for human consumption. As a member of the EU, Britain is a full party to this kind of interminable snarl-up. As EU enthusiasts, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to criticise Brussels for its reactionary resistance to innovation.

There’s plenty of such regulation in the UK, too. For instance, from 2016 all new houses must generate enough electricity to be ‘zero-carbon’ – and new non-residential buildings must do so by 2019. Want to bring out a new bodyspray destined for global markets? You’d better check out David Steinberg’s ‘Regulations of underarm antiperspirants and deodorants’, a bizarre chapter in the standard book Antiperspirants and Deodorants. Want to follow Lord Drayson’s plea for innovation in digital technologies? You’d be best advised not to start a social networking website, for fear that perverted murderers, child abusers and bullies might use it.

Indeed the big IT innovations proposed by New Labour in recent years have all involved IT applications designed to regulate behaviour: road pricing (abandoned), national ID cards (apparently abandoned), airport entry (biometric security at airports, body scanners), electricity usage (energy meters in the home), waste disposal (local councils tracking your rubbish), and, just this week, electronic implants in dogs.

This is hardly an aspiring programme for technological innovation.

Not every regulation is wrong. When the world’s manufacturers of mobile phones agreed that chargers should be standardised, who could disagree? Nevertheless, onerous regulations, which weigh down innovation, are more and more ubiquitous. In UK universities, to get a university grant for research and innovation involves an endless routine of filling out forms, saying what the past ‘impact’ of your research has been, and outlining what its future impact is likely to be.

Innovation, however, means making a persistent stab into the unknown. And the unknown cannot be regulated. We cannot routinise what we don’t yet know. Attempts to render technological change more predictable and ‘responsible’ can only mean closing down experiment and exploration.

Innovation is a risky business. Technological innovation creates new problems, and can even lead to deaths. On the whole, however, mankind solves those new problems. However, the contemporary impeding of innovation through regulation reflects not just the momentary lapse of a government functionary, but a dyed-in-the-wool cultural malaise, a deep antipathy to taking chances, and a fundamental nervousness about spending money on risky enterprises.

The over-regulation of innovation has acquired its own dynamic. What is now needed isn’t regulatory reform, but a sizeable – if discriminating – bonfire of controls that is more than merely rhetorical. To move Britain and the world forward, the deregulation of innovation is now an urgent imperative.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Norman Lewis is the founding partner of Open-Knowledge UK Ltd. Read his blog here. They are both contributors to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen argued that the current economic crisis was partly due to years of under-investment in R&D. Norman Lewis said we should look East to glimpse the future of the internet. Martyn Perks thought it’s unfortunate that the great potential of IT is being used for instrumental political ends. James Heartfield looked at Gordon Brown’s vampiric relationship with the ‘innovation economy’. Elsewhere, Mick Hume asked what happens if the state turns off the ‘life support’?
Or read more at spiked issue Innovation.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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