Strategic Advantage


The UK must be more ambitious

Naomi Weir

Naomi Weir is Programme Director of Innovation at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the UK business organisation. She leads their work to make the UK a great place for businesses to innovate – whether that is nurturing a culture of entrepreneurship, adopting tried and tested technologies or making breakthrough developments at the leading edge. She began her career in financial services before moving into policy, working on policy from R&D and entrepreneurship to skills, immigration and diversity in STEM.


  • The UK needs to be much more ambitious about growth
  • Policies should focus on where we want to be, 
  • rather than where we are now
  • Business needs to invest more and engage more with innovation
  • Policies and programmes should have clear, time-bound outcomes
  • If we are in a global race, then pace is an important factor which needs more attention.

To get the high-investment, high-productivity economy that we desire, while overcoming the headwinds the country is facing, be they shortages, energy prices and inflation, etc, we need to become much more ambitious about growth. The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and the Office of Science and Technology Strategy (OSTS) can have a really important role in delivering that focus.

The UK currently has a medium-term growth forecast of around 1.6% a year. Too often, the actions that are needed to drive really ambitious growth are put on the ‘too difficult’ pile. Instead of long-term ambitious plans, policies and investment levels are quite short-sighted, targeting quick returns over a one-to-two year period. Being stuck in a short-term, low-ambition cycle has real consequences, not least for innovation and R&D.

To turn this around we need that long-term direction, combined with ambitious policies that aim for higher growth. These should be policies that start not from where we are, but where we need to get to, ensuring the forward planning and upfront investment are in place.

What are we good at?

First, we need to identify our own strengths. What is the UK famous for? Importantly, what do our competitors say the UK is good at? What do people on the street and young people in our schools system think the UK is great at?

The persistent narrative is that the UK is good at research and not so good at innovation. Yet at the same time, in 2020 there was a new unicorn every 13 days in the UK. There is real progress and momentum. So, the general perception of the UK’s competitive strengths, both at home and internationally, does not properly reflect the current situation, let alone where – with some coordination – we could get to. That contributes to under-use of the UK’s capabilities in pursuing national strategic goals. It also contributes to under-investment, with business not seeing the UK as the best place to locate, while investors do not expect to find the companies or the ideas they need here. It also affects public investment. A collective effort is required to make sure investment from public, private and third sectors reaches our research and innovation base.

The current perception of an under-achieving UK can also lead to under-participation, where individuals do not see the UK as an exciting place to work or train.

The current perception of an under-achieving UK can also lead to under-participation, where individuals do not see the UK as an exciting place to work or train. Skills gaps are consequently particularly acute at the moment in a number of areas, and there are also diversity challenges.

Under-participation by businesses in innovation is also evident. If we are going to achieve our ambitions to grow the intensity of R&D in the UK, we need to grow investment from existing businesses and, in addition, more businesses must get involved in innovation in the first place. That ranges from adopting tried and tested technologies right through to being at the cutting edge. Challenging the current erroneous perception of the UK, and being clear where the UK can compete and win, will really help address that gap.

We need to tell the UK innovation story consistently, both at home and beyond. That means being clear on the UK’s real strengths (what we ought to be known for today) and real clarity about what we are aiming to achieve, so that people can join forces towards those ends.

We need clear, time-bound outcomes. There are parallels with the work of the National Infrastructure Commission. It has a different set-up but is tasked with strategy and monitoring. Business really values the rigour of that process, as well as its collaborative style, both informing and galvanising action. The establishment of the OSTS and NSTC promises that kind of rigorous, evidence-based approach, starting with a proper needs assessment, and a baseline assessment of where we are now. From there it will be possible to build an assessment of future need. What different capabilities or capacity are required, what are the goals and aspirations – what is actually needed to get from where we are now to where we need to be?

This may seem very basic, but in reality it is exceptionally complex and difficult, not just because of the scale of the challenge, but also because of ingrained short-termism and the inevitable political headwinds. The new structure also has a direct link into key decision-makers. Once there is clarity on where we can compete, a further sign of success will be if that analysis is followed up with action.

The offshore wind market is an example of bold strategic action by the UK Government.

Risk evaluation

Setting our sights on growth, will we take the big bold bets that are needed to get there? The creation of this new structure is a recognition that a re-evaluation of risk is necessary, i.e. including opportunity-cost in the mix. The country needs to be much more purposeful in aligning capabilities and pushing collective leadership in the right direction. The 5G roll-out is a good example of where we missed the boat initially and are now playing catch-up. Had we got this right, we could be in a very different position today.

Offshore wind, on the other hand, is a tale of two halves. Much of the technology is not British and could have been, yet the offshore wind market based on Contracts for Difference is a great example of strategic bold action, with the UK Government using its strategic levers to pull through.

Looking ahead, this new NSTC/OSTS structure can help the UK move from being on the backfoot to running at the front of the pack and setting the rules of the game in those areas which are really important for us. To create those leading positions, the country will need to make use of the outputs of scientific and technological advances. One of the signs that this new approach has been successful will be if we are making the most of these technologies – in Government, in business and in society at large.

This kind of shift requires a recalculation of risk, particularly in terms of Government procurement where risk aversion is a big disincentive to the procurement of innovation. Can we expand the factors so that opportunity cost is considered in the calculation of risk? For example, can we get to a point where not taking the risk to procure innovation in areas where the UK is looking to build strategic advantage is going to be seen as a failure? That would be a huge cultural change but perhaps a sign of success.

The lack of collaboration between public and private sectors is certainly something that must change. Another aspect is speed. There is much discussion of ideas and markets. Yet rarely is the question asked: “How quickly can we do it?” We talk about a global race, after all. There could be more reflection on how to move at pace in the chosen direction of travel.

Can we get to a point where not taking the risk to procure innovation in areas where the UK is looking to build strategic advantage is seen as a failure?