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Science and Innovation Have to be at the Heart of 2015 Election Manifestos If the UK Is to Maintain Economic Growth

12/06/2014 17:31 BST | Updated 12/08/2014 10:59 BST

As the political parties finalise their manifestos for 2015, helping science and technology start-ups and facilitating the commercialisation of university research has to be at the heart of economic policy if we are to gear the UK for growth.

While much focus has been on the need to rebalance the economy towards manufacturing and to rebuild the financial services sector, intellectual property and research in the UK needs to get equal focus.

In a price-conscious world, the UK is unlikely to compete with the manufacturing powerhouses in developing economies but we can lead the world through commercialising and developing technology and IP. The UK's future lies in backing brains, not brawn; so-called "knowledge jobs".

Pfizer's failed bid to take over Astra Zeneca helped highlight the value of the UK's IP economy, and Neil Woodford's much anticipated new investment fund launch has placed investing in UK science and technology as a core goal.

So if the UK's science and technology sector is widely recognised as a centre for excellence, why aren't we doing more to deliver funding and help for start-ups to this sector?

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has calculated that for every £1 spent by the government on R&D, private sector R&D output rises by 20p per year in perpetuity.

Yet despite the widely recognised role that science and engineering research and innovation plays as an accelerator for growth, the reality is the Government has extended the freeze on science spending into the 2015 - 2016 financial year, leaving it at the same level it has been since 2010.

Where funding is available it is often fragmented and confusing, leaving businesses unsure where to turn. The scrapping of the Regional Development Agencies may have saved money but the LEPs that replaced them do not offer a cohesive level of support or the same financial assistance.

To build long term successful businesses we need long-term finance and the banks are still not lending to start-ups and SMEs at the levels needed to meet demand. Their investment criteria remains funding minimum risk established businesses rather than growth companies. That means that too many good ideas are either left undeveloped or the SMEs that start commercialising them are sold, often to overseas buyers, before the value of the IP they have pioneered has been realised for UK Plc.

Accessing long-term funding and gaining support is critical to building the UK flagship companies of the future.

While scientists and engineers are brilliant innovators few are natural business people, the two roles require separate skills. For science and technology start-ups, navigating the choppy waters to find the right source of finance and commercial help is critical and needs focused help from a single source. With this "seed" finance, business people can be recruited so the next phase of growth has the two skill sets pulling together.

As economic growth continues to improve, the party that wins in 2015 will arguably be the one that makes the most convincing case for its economic stewardship and growth agenda. Science and technology need a greater focus from all parties as a cornerstone for this initiative.

Politicians have to lead this process, encourage new generations of scientists and engineers to continue studies to graduate and post graduate level and create a framework of tax breaks and grants that are accessible to businesses at the early growth phase.

The Government also needs to increase the UK's science budget as an accelerator for growth and to encourage matched investment from the private sector. The ongoing budget freeze is cutting real spending on a daily basis.

Overcoming the budget challenge and doing more to help early stage science and engineering innovators will help the UK develop new generations of companies whose business is based on smart ideas and IP. Making UK plc's "Knowledge Economy" a reality, not simply a feel-good headline.

That is a significant prize and holds the key to genuinely rebasing the UK economy.