On the UK’s chemicals industry

I did a webinar a couple of weeks ago, for the Society of Chemical Industry, about the role of the chemicals industry in addressing the UK’s problems of stagnant productivity and regional economic disparities. The recording of the talk should be on their website soon, but in the meantime here (5 MB PDF) are the slides I used. Here’s a summary of what I said.

I started by setting out the economic context the UK finds itself in. The very slow productivity growth since the 2007/8 global financial crisis has had the result that real wages have stagnated, while economic performance across the regions of the UK remains very uneven.

The most important contributor to productivity growth – and thus to rising living standards – is what economists call “total factor productivity” – the measure of how effectively an economy converts inputs, in the form of labour and capital, into valuable outputs. This includes, but is not limited to, the technological advances that allow us to produce existing products more efficiently and to create entirely new products and services.

We can thus map the different sectors of the UK’s economy on 2 dimensions – how big a share of the economy they take, and how much their total factor productivity increases. I argue that industrial strategy should focus on those areas that are both significant in scale relative to the economy as a whole, and that are dynamic in terms of showing long-term increases in total factor productivity. The three crucial sectors in the UK economy by these measures are knowledge intensive business services, information and communication technologies, and manufacturing. Within manufacturing, transport equipment – automotive and aerospace – stand out, but chemicals and pharmaceuticals are also highly significant.

Cumulative growth in total factor productivity in selected UK sectors and sub-sectors, indexed to 1995. Data from EU KLEMS Growth and Productivity Accounts database.”

Looking at the changes in total factor productivity over the last couple of decades offers an instructive window on the way the UK’s economy has changed.

Because normally manufacturing to grows productivity faster than services, we’d usually expect total factor productivity in the manufacturing sector to grow faster than the whole market economy. In the UK, that wasn’t so in the mid-1990’s – manufacturing lagged behind the economy as a whole. But from 1998 to the global financial crisis, manufacturing TFP grew faster than the economy as a whole; since the crisis both have stagnated.

Part of the explanation for this comes from the figures for the financial services industry. This showed very fast growth in the late 1990’s, booming right up to the financial crisis – since when it has fallen precipitately. It’s at least possible that some of the apparent boom was due to the way value is measured – or mismeasured – in financial services, but it’s clear that this sector, so influential politically, has been a drag on the whole economy over the last decade.

Focusing on manufacturing subsectors, transport equipment – including automotive and aerospace – stagnated in the late 90’s, began a recovery in the 00’s, which took off dramatically after the global financial crisis. It’s intriguing that the timing of this recovery almost exactly coincides with the UK government’s rediscovery of industrial policy – with an initial focus on automotive and aerospace industries. Pharmaceutical total factor productivity boomed from the late 90’s to the end of the 00’s, then collapsing, for reasons I’ve discussed extensively elsewhere.

But the surprise – to many, I suspect – is the performance of the chemicals sector. Written off in the late 90’s as the “old economy”, the chemicals industry has delivered the steadiest gains in total factor productivity, its cumulative performance exceeding both financial services and pharmaceuticals.

What’s more, if we look at where the chemicals industry takes place, in the context of regional economic inequality and the “levelling up” agenda of the government, we find that it is located outside the prosperous southeast, in Northwest England, the Humber and Teeside.

What sectors should industrial strategy focus on? My criteria would look at relative scale, the potential to produce significant and sustained gains in total factor productivity, and to contribute to economic growth in economically lagging parts of the UK. The chemicals industry qualifies on all counts.

What, though, of the future? Economic statistics don’t capture some of the costs of the chemicals industry, but these costs are borne by society more widely. The feedstocks it uses may be unsustainable and deplete the planet’s natural capital, pollution may damage local environments and ecosystems. Improper disposal of products – like plastic packaging – at their end of life causes yet more environmental damage.

Perhaps most importantly, the energy the industry uses produces carbon dioxide and thus accelerates climate change. 3% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are directly associated with the chemicals industry, which accounts for about 20% of all emissions associated with manufacturing.

There is another side of the ledger, too. The products of the chemicals industry – like batteries and fuel cells – will be crucial in decarbonising the economy. In the future we might see the widespread use of hydrogen as an energy vector, direct capture of carbon dioxide from the air, and the synthesis of hydrocarbons from green hydrogen and captured carbon dioxide for zero-carbon aviation. Much of the net zero agenda is in fact a chemical industry agenda.

We need an industrial strategy for the UK chemicals industry, justified by its scale and its record of steady total factor productivity improvement. It’s a pity that the government hasn’t responded to the Chemistry Council’s proposed Sector Deal, which would provide a good start. In addition to a focus on productivity growth, that strategy should have a regional element, building on the existing chemical industry clusters in the North West and North East with further interventions to promote innovation and skills and all levels. Above all, it should emphasise the important role and responsibility of the chemicals industry as part of the wider economic transformation that needs to take place to achieve the government’s 2050 Net Zero emissions target.

The role of hydrogen in reaching net zero

The good news from the latest release of the UK government’s energy statistics is that the fraction of electrical power generated from renewable sources in 2019 reached a record high of 37.1%, driven largely by an increase in offshore wind of 20%, to a new high of 32 TWh a year. The bad news is how little difference this makes to the UK’s overall energy consumption – of the 2300 TWh used, 78.3% was obtained from burning fossil fuels. This is a decrease from last year’s fraction – 79.4% – but progress remains much too slow.

It’s tempting to focus on the progress we are making in decarbonising the electricity supply, and this isn’t insignificant. But while the UK used 346 TWh of electricity in 2019, the country directly burnt gas to provide 512 TWh heat for domestic and industrial purposes (not counting here the gas converted to electricity in power stations), and 152 TWh of petrol and 301 TWh of diesel to power vehicles. We’ve no chance of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 without displacing this directly burnt fossil fuel contribution. And given the longevity of energy infrastructures, we haven’t got long to start building out the technologies to do this at scale.

Can hydrogen help? This technology – or more accurately, group of potential technologies – is having a moment of attention, not for the first time. I think it could well make a significant contribution, but there are some awkward choices to make. Implementing any use of hydrogen in our energy system at scale will involve massive, long-term investments, and making the right choices involve difficult economic judgements, not just about the technologies as they currently exist, but as they may evolve under the pressures of energy markets across the world. Of course that evolution can be steered by incentives, regulation, and targeted support for research and development.

To begin with the basics, because there aren’t any reserves of molecular hydrogen lying around, it isn’t a source of energy, but a way of storing, transmitting and using energy. When burnt, or combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, it produces nothing but water. So the issue is how you make it without producing carbon dioxide in its manufacture. There are three broad options:

  • Currently, most hydrogen is made from natural gas through a process called steam methane reformation. By adding heat to water and methane, with suitable catalysts, one can obtain hydrogen and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide produced in the reaction, and any that results from generating the heat needed to make the reaction run, would need to be captured and stored underground in old gas fields. This process, including separating the carbon dioxide, are mature technologies, used for example at scale to produce ammonia for fertiliser.
  • If zero-carbon energy is available cheaply, from wind, solar or nuclear, intrinsically zero carbon hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water. The most effective current technology uses a proton exchange membrane to separate anode and cathode.
  • If zero-carbon process heat is available cheaply, from high temperature nuclear reactors or solar concentrators, hydrogen can be made by the thermochemical splitting of water. (As a combination of the last two ideas, given both process heat and electricity, high temperature electrolysis is another option).
  • How then might the hydrogen be used to attack the carbon dioxide currently produced by the nearly 1000 TWh of energy we derive from burning gas, petrol and diesel for heating and transport?

  • Right now we could add some hydrogen to natural gas – perhaps up to 20% – making a significant lowering of its carbon intensity without substantial changes in our existing systems.
  • The complete replacement of natural gas by zero-carbon hydrogen for domestic heating and many industrial processes is probably technically feasible, but quite a lot more expensive. Some changes will need to be made to the gas distribution system (e.g. replacement of iron/steel pipes with thermoplastic pipes), and boilers and appliances would probably have to be replaced too.
  • Hydrogen can be used for transport, as fuel for internal combustion engines, or more likely, converted to electricity via fuel cells to power cars and trucks.
  • Finally, hydrogen might make possible the very large scale seasonal storage of energy (potentially on the scale of 10’s or even 100’s or TWh) generated by intermittent renewables, by storing it underground in rock salt formations.
  • All of these ways of making hydrogen and using it are technically possible. They’re also all potentially enormously expensive, with the potential for locking the country into solutions which turn out to be inappropriate or made redundant by rival technologies. Some experimentation is necessary, and some blind alleys are probably inevitable, but what needs to be taken into account as we make our choices?

    To start with the basic physics and chemistry, hydrogen is a light gas which burns completely and cleanly to yield only water vapour. Perceptions of hydrogen are inevitably shaped by the Hindenburg disaster – but all flammable gases are potentially dangerous, and these are risks of the kind that industrial societies have got used to managing. Hydrogen is more easily set aflame than methane and it burns hotter, but on the other hand at atmospheric pressure burning a given volume of hydrogen produces less energy than the equivalent volume of methane, and much less than petrol vapour. In fact it’s this low volumetric energy density of hydrogen that poses the biggest problem. Even compressed to 70 MPa (as it would be in typical compressed gas tanks) its energy density is only 1.3 MWh per cubic meter, compared to petrol or aviation spirit eat about 10 MWh per cubic meter. Even liquified its energy density is still only 2 MWh per cubic meter, and this needs a temperature of -250 °C, considerably colder than liquid nitrogen.

    Moving on to economics, how can we find the most cost-effective solutions? The problem is that technologies don’t stand still – indeed, it’s essential that costs come down, and substantial research efforts are needed to make sure that happens. Where can we hope to see the biggest cost reductions? Existing technologies – like steam reforming of natural gas with carbon capture – are probably the cheapest options with current technology, but being mature further improvements are likely to be more difficult to find than with newer technologies like proton exchange membrane or high temperature electrolysis.

    It’s important to remember that the UK accounted for just 1.4% of the world’s energy consumption in 2018, and this fraction will inevitably (and desirably) fall over the next few decades. The choices we make must take into account what the rest of the world is likely to do; while the UK might hope to influence that path, perhaps by helping develop new technologies cheap enough for wide adoption, the UK isn’t a big enough market to be able to make unilateral decisions about technology directions. If battery electric vehicles win the race for zero-carbon personal transport, it would be pointless for the UK to develop a hydrogen network for fuel cell cars. Likewise, if the UK is the only country to back hydrogen boilers for domestic heating while the rest of the world chooses electric heat pumps, it won’t be a big enough market to justify the development of hydrogen domestic boilers by itself, so its plans would be left high and dry.

    We have well developed existing energy distribution systems, so the question for any new energy vector is whether these systems can be incrementally adapted, or do new ones need to be built out entirely from scratch? We currently have a well developed electricity distribution system. Distributed PEM electrolysis plants could take zero-carbon from the grid, and produce hydrogen locally. We also have systems for distributing natural gas: it’s likely that the core high pressure network would have to be entirely rebuilt for hydrogen, but the low pressure local distribution system could be adapted. We don’t have a cryogenic liquid distribution system at scale, and this is likely to limit global trade in hydrogen.

    Finally, we have to consider our plans for low carbon electricity. Whatever we do, we need to replace the 512 TWh of gas we use for heating, and the 453 TWh of petrol and diesel we use for transport, with zero carbon alternatives. If this involves electrification – either directly or through the production of hydrogen from zero-carbon electricity – this will need a huge expansion of power generation capacity from the current 346 TWh/yr. I find it difficult to see how this can happen without both a massive increase in offshore wind – possibly including floating offshore wind – and new nuclear build, possibly next generation nuclear able to produce high temperature process heat for production of additional hydrogen.

    These are difficult choices, but we haven’t got much time. Let’s get on with it!

    Some references:

    Current UK energy statistics from DUKES 2020.
    Hydrogen supply chain evidence base.
    On hydrogen storage (US Dept of Energy PDF)
    Royal Society Policy Brief Options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale.

    The right road to higher UK research and development spending?

    The UK government published a “Research and Development Roadmap” last week, setting out “the UK’s vision and ambition for science, research and innovation”. It’s not by itself a strategy; instead it’s a document that sets out the issues that a subsequent strategy will need to address. The goals of the government here are very ambitious, and need to be thought of as part of a wider plan to remake the UK state as a global centre for science and innovation, after its departure from the European Union. In the recent words of the Prime Minister, “though we are no longer a military superpower we can be a science superpower”. Does this Roadmap give us a realistic route for translating this aspiration into policy?

    What’s at stake?

    The context for the roadmap is the commitment to raise the UK government’s R&D spend to £22 billion by 2024/25. The roadmap is important as a reassertion of this goal, set in the March 2020 budget, despite the strains that the pandemic have put on the public finances.

    What does this mean in practise? Total government spending on R&D was £12.8 billion in 2018 (the most recent year for which full figures are available). The implication is that this must rise by £1.5 billion per year on average. This amounts to introducing new spending amounting to the total budget of two large research councils (e.g. EPSRC and BBSRC combined), every year. There is very little clarity of how this is planned to happen. Will the change be evolutionary – just increasing spending through existing institutions, or revolutionary – introducing entirely new, large scale institutions, agencies and mechanisms?

    In very rough terms (rounded to the nearest half billion), Research Councils spend £4 billion a year, another £2.5 billion go to Universities through Research England and the devolved nations’ funding agencies, and InnovateUK gets a bit less than £1 billion. This is now bundled up in UKRI (except university funding in devolved nations). We’ve seen a £1.5 billion increase for UKRI in 2020/21, mostly in new funding instruments like the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

    But it’s important to remember that the Research Councils are not the only means by which the government spends money on R&D. £1 billion goes into health research, mostly through the Department of Health’s National Institute for Health Research, £1.5 billion is spend on defence R&D by MoD, and BEIS spends a bit less than £1 billion outside UKRI (e.g. for space, UKAEA for the fusion programme, the National Physical Laboratory, and various industry programmes). The other government departments spend about another £1 billion between them.

    Finally, the UK Government spends money indirectly via its participation in the EU programmes. This amounts to another notional £1 billion.

    What are the government’s current imperatives?

    Where will the extra £1.5 billion a year go? Choices will be steered by the government’s current and emerging priorities. Here is a (no doubt) incomplete list, in no particular order:

    Increasing business R&D. The £22 billion is the government’s contribution to a bigger target – to increase the UK economy’s total R&D intensity from its current proportion of 1.7% of GDP to 2.4%. But most R&D comes from the private sector, in a roughly 2:1 ratio. So to achieve the overall target, the public money must be deployed in a way that maximises the chance of the private sector increasing its own spending in that 2:1 ratio. What will best persuade businesses – both UK owned and overseas owned – to spend another £18 billion or so a year on R&D in the UK?

    Translating R&D spending into economic outcomes. The current economic crisis makes this even more pressing, so there will be even more emphasis on interventions which will plausibly lead to productivity increases and new jobs, on timescales of years rather than decades.

    “Levelling up.” The economic underperformance of the UK outside the greater Southeast – including the relative underperformance of core cities like Manchester, the difficulties of deindustrialised towns and urban fringes, and the economic and social problems of rural and coastal peripheries, have achieved real political salience as the electoral centre of gravity of the Conservative party has moved north. The concentration of public R&D resources in the prosperous Southeast – as Tom Forth and I recently highlighted in our NESTA “Missing £4 billion” report – is increasingly recognised as part of the problem.

    Solving big societal problems. I believe the commitment of the government to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is serious, but I don’t think policy makers yet realise the full scale of this economic transition. As this realisation takes hold the expectations on innovation and technology to deliver affordable solutions will only increase. Meanwhile the aftermath of the pandemic will prompt a reassessment of whether our “life sciences sector” has the optimal shape to support national health and well-being. The problems the UK is having in deploying a large-scale testing programme illustrate that strength in biotech and pharmaceutical research doesn’t automatically translate into diagnostic capacity. If and when vaccines and antibody therapeutics for COVID come on stream, there will be a tough test of the UK’s manufacturing capacity in the face of worldwide demand.

    Perceived problems in the culture of research in the UK and internationally. There is a strong perception in parts of government that all is not well in the culture of research in the UK. There’s a view that research culture itself is unhealthy, with insufficient autonomy for younger researchers and problems in the career structure, while the culture of funding bodies is believed to be too risk averse and bureaucratic.

    Life after Brexit. The position of UK science in an international context is clearly in question in the aftermath of Brexit. The immediate problem is the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU’s science programmes. It’s clear that there is a desire for the UK to associate with Horizon Europe, but this is a second order issue for the government so if negotiations falter for other reasons then this may not happen, in which case there will be a need to find replacement programmes (particularly for the ERC, which is highly prized by the science establishment). The longer term issues are the nature of scientific relationships with other existing and emerging and science powers, and ensuring an openness to scientific talent from the rest of the world.

    Economic and technological sovereignty. Finally, the rapidly changing attitude of the government to China has raised questions of the degree to which the UK can be autonomous in key areas of strategic technology. The saga of Huawei’s involvement in the 5G network, questions about the involvement of China in the nuclear new build programme, and a realisation of the limitations of global supply chains in the pandemic, have led to talk of retaining or rebuilding some of the UK’s technological sovereign capability in key areas. I don’t think policy makers yet fully appreciate how much this capability has been run down over the last few decades.

    Possible new policies suggested by the Roadmap

    The roadmap reads as a rather open-ended document, but within it are some strong hints and indications of possible new policy directions. Here I’ve tried to extract some possible new policies that seem to be being suggested, expressing them in a more concrete way than the Roadmap does, where necessary reading between the lines, and possibly on occasion extrapolating somewhat. I’ve suggested some of the questions that these proposals might provoke. We need to keep in mind the scale of interventions implied by the £22 billion target – i.e. £1.5 billion additional spending each year, in considering these possible new policies.

    Raising our research ambitions

    New mechanisms for funding will be introduced, which involve less bureaucracy and taking bigger bets: more long-term, investigator-led funding. The new UK-ARPA like agency is already announced, but at £200m a year this is relatively small. It will sit outside UKRI. Will any other new mechanisms be left to the research councils, or can we expect more new agencies to be created?

    Defense-related R&D could be substantially increased. This would address the funding gap for development relative to research, and it’s a sector in which there is existing capacity which could be expanded – in both the public and private sectors. But how can we avoid the waste that defense procurement is often accused of, and maximise spillovers to the civilian economy?

    The government will fund large-scale “Moonshot” projects. Again, if done seriously this would lead to more development funding. What do we mean by a “moonshot”? To me, it needs to be an ambitious, engineering project that delivers a concrete outcome (i.e. at least a full scale prototype) on a defined timescale, but which is difficult enough that it drives a substantial associated R&D programme to solve the problems that arise on the way. The questions it prompts include – how would we select them, how can we be confident that the UK has the capacity to deliver, what scale of spending is involved? My first guess on the latter question is that if this isn’t measured in £ billions it’s either not a proper moonshot or we’re not serious about succeeding.

    What are possible concrete examples?

  • An all electric long haul aeroplane, as mentioned in the Prime Minister’s recent speech. (I think this is technologically implausible – my guess now is that if we want long-haul flying in a zero carbon world we will do it by making synthetic hydrocarbon fuel from green hydrogen and carbon dioxide captured directly from air).
  • A generation 4 advanced modular fission reactor which is low waste, intrinsically fail-safe and generates enough process heat to produce hydrogen as well as electricity (I think the government should do this).
  • A working, scalable, quantum computer (In my view this would be an example of a bad choice because the UK is not competitive with existing major projects elsewhere in the world).
  • A commercial fusion reactor supplying significant, low cost electricity to the grid by 2040 (i.e. STEP – the Spherical Tokomak for Energy Production. I think the government will do this, and it probably should, in case it works.)
  • Inspiring and enabling talented people and teams

    A big increase in R&D spending won’t deliver results if there aren’t the talented people – at all levels – to do the work. Much potential homegrown talent is currently missed, due to the underrepresentation of women and black and minority ethnic people in research. The roadmap announces the creation of an “Office of Talent” to make it easier for overseas researchers to work and settle in the UK.

    The relationship between higher education and further education will be rethought, especially in the context of expanding intermediate level technical training. I believe that we need much more joined-up systems for further and higher education on a regional basis, with much easier routes between the different parts of the system, and much more cooperation to expand provision for adult and continuing education.

    Catapult Centres could be given a more explicit mandate to embrace technical training in their missions. Again, this needs to be done in a regional context, working with existing HE and FE institutions.

    There will be an expansion of postgraduate research training. Will responsibility for PGR training be left with the research councils? Do we think of PhD students as primarily researchers or as trainees? Currently, PhD students are funded at a level far below the actual cost of training them, so given the current financial difficulties of universities the appropriate funding level will need to be reconsidered.

    Innovation and productivity

    The proportion of public R&D funding devoted to translational and applied research will be increased, with a particular focus on new medicines and treatment, and on defense research. What agencies will this funding be pushed through? Will funding for NIHR be substantially increased? What will be the role of Innovate UK?

    Universities will be further incentivised to carry out knowledge exchange activities: HEIF funding is being increased, and the Knowledge Exchange Framework introduced. Care will be needed to create the right incentives here – perhaps they could be structured to encourage more regional collaboration between institutions?

    The Catapult Network of translational research institutes could be restructured “We will review whether they should all continue in their current form, exploring the potential to seize new opportunities.” There’s a broader question of whether the Catapult Network should continue to be run by InnovateUK, or developed as an independent translational research agency with greater central coordination?

    New innovation zones and clusters should be created, based around existing and new innovation assets such as Catapult Centres, and the role of Catapult Centres in promoting local and regional economic growth made more explicit in their goals. What is the right balance between the regional and national missions of Catapult Centres?

    Levelling up R&D across the UK

    “We have already committed to developing a comprehensive and ambitious UK R&D Place Strategy together with the devolved administrations over the coming months.” Tom Forth and I have published a comprehensive set of suggestions for “levelling up” in our recent NESTA paper “The Missing £4 billion”.

    Central government will support local leaders in co-creating effective innovation approaches for their local economies. Should this be made formal, with cities/regions coming forward with “innovation deals” in return for devolved funding, as Tom Forth and I suggested?

    Some proportion of national R&D funding should be ring-fenced for particular regions, in order to make progress towards “levelling-up” R&D funding across the country, and/or devolved to those cities and regions that have demonstrated the capacity to create robust innovation strategies. How much of the “levelling up” agenda should be driven top-down as opposed to created bottom-up?

    All future decisions on R&D infrastructure investments should include an explicit consideration of their impacts on local and regional economies. This commitment is explicitly made in the Roadmap, though the issue will be the weight that is in practise attached to these factors relative to national considerations.

    There should be mechanisms for more local and regional voices in the advice given to central government agencies. The emphasis so far has been on UKRI, but what about NIHR, MoD, and any new agencies that emerge?

    Being at the forefront of global collaboration

    The immediate question here is what happens to the UK’s participation in EU science programs. The stated intention is to negotiate participation in Horizon Europe and the Euratom research programme – but there is an if: “It is our ambition to fully associate to both programmes if we can agree a fair and balanced deal”. So there is a plan B:

    “If we do not formally associate to Horizon Europe or Euratom R&T, we will implement ambitious alternatives as quickly as possible from January 2021 and address the funding gap. As a first step we will launch an ambitious new Discovery Fund offering sizeable grants over long periods of time to talented early, mid and late-career researchers, whether already in the UK or coming here from anywhere in the world, to pursue discovery-led, ground- breaking research.” This is clearly intended as a substitute for the European Research Council. One shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of rapidly establishing a single-nation programme that reproduces the rigour and credibility of the ERC.

    More funding will be made for bilateral programmes with appropriate national partners across the world, in a way that is more responsive to new opportunities. This in part is a response to a long-standing complaint by Science Ministers that they don’t have any flexibility to assign such funds during overseas visits, but this raises the problem of how to make the choice of partner countries strategic rather than simply depending on the travel schedule of the Minister. European partners shouldn’t be neglected here.

    Ensuring a healthy R&D system

    Public sector research establishments (PSREs) will be strengthened and integrated into the wider system. They will be allowed to bid for funding from UKRI, which should come with full economic costs. What is the right division of labour between university-based research and R&D in PSREs? Is there a danger of the two parts of the system entering into sub-optimal competition?

    The PSRE network will be integrated into a true network of national laboratories, strengthened where necessary, with new organisations being created to fill obvious gaps. This needs a very clear view of national strategic priorities. One answer to the previous question is to differentiate more clearly between strategic science in support of national priorities and discovery science, but then this needs clarity about how universities and PSREs can most effectively collaborate.

    My concrete suggestion would be to create a new “Net Zero Delivery Agency” to take responsibility for the innovation that will be needed to reach the net zero greenhouse gas goal.

    The Government Office for Science will be strengthened and its resources increased, so that it can coordinate better science advice government and act as an authoritative technology assessment agency. Increased funding for GO Science was announced in the March budget, which I welcome.

    The Research Excellence Framework will be reformed to reduce its bureaucratic overhead and focus more on measuring change and development. How to do this without introducing perverse incentives?

    University research will be funded at closer to full economic cost. Part of the reason that a larger proportion of the UK’s public research enterprise happens in universities than in other comparable countries is that this has seemed a cheaper way of doing research than carrying it out in free-standing research institutes. But, as we’re now about to find out, that’s been an illusion – in reality, universities have subsidised the cost of research using the surplus from teaching overseas students. This subsidy – amounting to about a couple of billion pounds a year across the system – has been dramatically exposed by the pandemic.

    What’s next?

    The last section of the document begins by saying: “This Roadmap is the start of a conversation”. This conversation needs to take place with some speed: over this summer and autumn, the government needs to put in place its future spending plans in a Comprehensive Spending Review. In normal times, we’d expect this to cover the next three years – 21/22, 22/23 and 23/24. It’s the year after that – 24/25 – that the commitment to £22 billion R&D spending has been made, so these three years need to see substantial progress towards reaching that target, with concrete plans for those £billion scale increases. But it takes time to build new institutions, to recruit suitable people, to make evidence-based decisions about what projects to support.

    It’s natural to ask, how robust will this spending target, and the general priority being attached to R&D, be to the shifting winds of politics? While the commitment of the current Number 10 operation to R&D seems not to be in doubt, it’s not obvious that there’s a deep commitment to research throughout the Conservative Party. It’s not difficult to imagine circumstances – perhaps a change in leadership following the inevitable economic difficulties that we’ll encounter recovering from the pandemic – in which that commitment will be diluted.

    Of course, the spending target isn’t the ultimate goal, it’s the means to an end. That end is a more prosperous, more productive nation, with prosperity spread more equally across the country, on track to rapidly move its energy economy to a sustainable, net zero greenhouse emissions, basis. It is these goals that should drive our emerging R&D strategy.

    On UK Research and Innovation’s new start

    The UK’s new science funding agency – UK Research and Innovation – is now 2 years old, and its founding Chief Executive, Sir Mark Walport, has recently stepped down, being replaced by the plant scientist Dame Ottoline Leyser. This is a short piece I wrote on the occasion of the transition, for the trade magazine “Research Professional”.

    The question UKRI faces, as the custodian of the UK’s public research sector, is this: is the shape of the UK’s research sector right for the problems the country faces? There is much that is excellent about the sector, but it has three big problems: it is too small for the scale of the economy, it is too regionally concentrated, and it is underweight in translational research.

    The government is committed to addressing the problem of scale through a very ambitious spending uplift. But where, and on what, should the new money be spent? As Tom Forth and I have recently argued (in our NESTA report, “The Missing £4 billion”), the concentration of research spending in those parts of the country that are already the most prosperous is politically and economically unsustainable. New institutions need to be set up to support the lagging economies outside London and the South East.

    International comparisons show that the UK has tended to neglect applied and translational research. To meet the government’s target for R&D intensity, public investment must be designed to induce the private sector to spend more on R&D too.

    Yet, paradoxically, many feel that UKRI hasn’t effectively supported the most basic, undirected research well enough either, in contrast to the high reputation of the European Research Council, whose important role in the UK system is now under threat. The role of the new ARPA-like agency planned by the government to sit outside UKRI is another complication. In my view, UKRI should be flexible enough to accommodate such an organisation, and the fact that it is not perceived to be so is a problem.

    The new CEO’s hands are not tied by an existing well-developed strategy for UKRI, and more work remains to create a sense of common purpose amongst UKRI’s nine constituent organisations. But Dame Ottoline has a well-earned reputation as a serious thinker about the place of research in the economy and society, not afraid to be critical of some aspects of the existing research system and its cultures and behaviours. She will have the support and good wishes of the research community at a crucial time for UKRI.

    Give the UK’s nations and regions the tools they need to prosper

    This piece is based on talks I’ve given to present some of the arguments of the paper Tom Forth and I have just published with NESTA. The full paper is available here: The Missing £4 Billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK.

    The UK is two countries, economically. In terms of productivity, “Greater South East England” – London, the South East and some of the East of England – is a country with a level of productivity comparable to richest parts of the rest of Northern Europe. But much of the rest of the UK – including the Midlands, the North, much of the Southwest of England, together with Wales and Northern Ireland – is more comparable to East Germany and Southern Italy in its productivity

    The differences aren’t quite as stark when we look at living standards, because the UK runs an effective transfer union, where money generated in London and the South East is used to run the public services in the rest of the country. In terms of the balance between the tax and other revenues generated, and current government expenditure, only three regions of the UK put in more than they take out – the highly productive regions of London, the South East and the East of England.

    The argument about “levelling up” economic performance across the country is often presented in terms of fairness. But we would have a fairer country if the Greater South East could keep more of the money it generates, while the rest of the country was able to pay its own way. A less economically unbalanced country would be both fairer and more prosperous.

    But while the current expenditures of the less productive parts of the country are heavily subsidised by the greater South East, the opposite is the case for those types of investments that would enhance the productivity of the economically lagging regions. For investments like research and development, we spend the most money in exactly those regions that are already the most prosperous and productive. In effect, for many decades, we have been operating an anti-regional policy.

    Currently, the regions and subregions containing London, Oxford and Cambridge account for 46 per cent of public and charitable R&D in the UK, with just 21 per cent of the population. Strikingly, public spending on R&D is even more concentrated than private sector spending.

    By general agreement, the UK invests too little overall on R&D anyway. The nation’s R&D intensity – total spending on R&D, public and private, as a fraction of GDP – is 1.66 per cent, closer to countries like Italy and Spain than Germany or France, let alone innovation leaders like South Korea, with a total R&D spending of 4.55% of GDP. That’s why it’s welcome that the government has committed to increasing public spending on R&D to £22 billion a year by 2025, to get closer to the OECD average R&D intensity of 2.4%.

    How much money would it take to increase R&D spending in the nations and regions to the level in greater South East England? To “level up” per capita investment right across the country would take a bit more than £4 billion a year – £1.6 billion would need to go to the North of England, £1.4 billion to the Midlands, £420 million to Wales, £580 million to South West England and £250 million to Northern Ireland, with spending in Scotland largely unchanged.

    These are large numbers. The problem of regional R&D imbalances is a long-standing one, and there’s a tendency among some policy makers to say, “we’ve tried to solve this before and nothing’s worked”. The Regional Development Agencies in England spent about £100 million a year on innovation in the mid-2000’s. This did some useful things but was an order of magnitude too small to make a material difference. We failed in the past because we didn’t really try.

    But in the context of a planned increase in R&D spending to £22 billion, given a current 20/21 budget for UKRI (the UK’s single research and innovation agency) of £8.4 billion (itself a substantial increase on earlier years, the necessary increases in the nations and regions are entirely feasible within the planned funding uplift.

    Of course, it’s easy to spend money, but more difficult to do this well in a way that maximises the chances that it will lead to better economic outcomes for the whole of the UK, at the same time contributing to the nation’s wider goals. But there are some general guiding principles.

    Firstly, we should follow the signals that the market sector gives us. Regions like the English Midlands and North West are characterised by private sector investment in R&D that is disproportionately large compared to the public sector investment. Here there are innovation systems that are strong already, but they need to be supported by public sector investment in the same way as happens in more prosperous Greater South East England. There is a more immediate crisis, here, as well. The impact of Covid-19 on the aerospace and automotive industries is a threat to these innovation systems, and we need to preserve the massive concentrations of know-how in companies like Rolls-Royce and JLR, and their suppliers.

    Secondly, where we need to build innovation capacity in those parts of the country which are relatively weak in both public and private sector R&D, we should look to those entirely new industries and clusters we need to build up to meet future challenges. For example, we might want to ask, as we emerge from the current pandemic, whether the life sciences sector we have is right one to meet this kind of public health crisis.

    This short term pandemic crisis shouldn’t blind us to the fact we’re immersed in the much longer term crisis of climate change. The government has signed up to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This implies a massive transition for our economy, which needs to be underpinned by innovation to make it affordable and achievable. We could be building a new hydrogen economy on Teeside and the Humber, deep sea floating offshore wind in the South West, next generation small modular reactors in Cumbria, all underpinned by research and innovation.

    Thirdly, we need to break out of the trap that many of our towns and urban fringes have found themselves in, where low skills, low innovation and low productivity reinforce each other in a bad equilibrium leading to low wages and poor health outcomes. To break this cycle, we need at the same time to raise the demand for skills by attracting inward investment from technologically leading companies and driving up the innovative capacity of the existing business base, and create the supply of skills by a much more joined up approach between further and higher education. The creation of more Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Districts, like the one that’s grown up around the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham, is one way to do this.

    Different places have different problems, so there won’t a single solution. Our major cities outside the greater South East still underperform compared to second tier cities in France or Germany – agglomeration effects are important, but in the UK we don’t seem to be able to capture them fully. These cities need more R&D as part of a wider expansion of high value, knowledge intensive business services. Meanwhile some of the most intractable economic and social problems are to be found in the UK’s coastal and rural fringes – but more R&D probably isn’t the right recipe here. R&D is important, but it’s far from the only tool we have.

    The UK’s economic imbalances are long-standing problems, that have been long recognised – and yet little progress has been made towards solving them. The UK’s highly centralised state is part of the problem. At this unique moment, where total R&D investment is planned to increase, we can rebalance R&D across the country without jeopardising the strong innovation systems of the greater South East, which remain a national asset.

    A substantial fraction of the planned uplift in R&D spending should be devolved – to the devolved nations, and in England to cities and regions. This isn’t completely straightforward, because of the messy nature of the incomplete English devolution settlement. And it’s a fair comment that many cities and regions don’t yet have the capacity they need to make effective choices about how to spend R&D funds. But these aren’t reasons not to make the changes that are needed; they underline the need to take devolution further and develop that capacity.

    To read the whole paper, see: The Missing £4 Billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK.

    The Missing £4 billion: making R&D work for the whole UK

    Tom Forth and I have a new policy paper out, published by the Innovation Foundation NESTA, called The Missing £4 billion: making R&D work for the whole UK

    This was covered by the Financial Times, complete with celebrity endorsement: Academic cited by Cummings wants to redraw map of research spending

    Here is the Executive Summary:

    The Missing £4 billion: making R&D work for the whole UK

    The UK’s regional imbalances in economic performance are exacerbated by regional imbalances in R&D spending

    There are two economies in the UK. Much of London, South East England and the East of England has a highly productive, prosperous knowledge-based economy. But in the Midlands and the North of England, in much of South West England and in Wales and Northern Ireland, the economy lags behind our competitors in Northern Europe. Scotland sits in between. In underperforming large cities, in towns that have never recovered from deindustrialisation, in rural and coastal fringes, weak innovation systems are part of the cause of low productivity economies.

    The government supports regional innovation systems through its spending on public sector research and development (R&D). This investment is needed now more than ever; we have an immediate economic crisis because of the pandemic, but the long-term problems of the UK economy – a decade of stagnation of productivity growth, which led to stagnant wages and weak government finances, and persistent regional imbalances – remain. Government investment in R&D is highly geographically imbalanced. If the government were to spend at the same intensity in the rest of the country as it does in the wider South East of England, it would spend £4 billion more. This imbalance wastes an opportunity to use public spending to ‘level up’ areas with weaker economies and achieve economic convergence.

    The UK’s research base has many strengths, some truly world leading. But three main shortcomings currently inhibit it from playing its full role in economic growth. It is too small for the size of the country, it is relatively weak in translational research and industrial R&D, and it is too geographically concentrated in already prosperous parts of the country, often at a distance from where business conducts R&D.

    The UK’s R&D intensity is too low

    The UK’s overall R&D intensity is low. Measured as a ratio to (pre-COVID-19 crisis) gross domestic product (GDP), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average is 2.37 per cent. The UK, at 1.66 per cent, is closer to countries like Italy and Spain than Germany or France.

    The UK government has committed to matching the current OECD average by 2027, pledging an increase in public spending to £22 billion by 2025. Looking internationally shows us that substantial increases in R&D intensity are possible. Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Korea have all dramatically increased R&D intensity in recent decades. The major part of these increases is funded by the private sector, but public sector increases are almost always required alongside or in advance of this. The ratio of R&D funding from the two sources is typically 2:1, and this is a good rule of thumb for considering how increased R&D might be funded in the UK.

    The UK’s R&D is highly regionally imbalanced

    Looking at both the total level of spending on R&D and the ratio of public to private R&D spending is a good way to classify innovation systems within regions.
    • The South East and East of England are highly research intensive with high investment by the state combined with business investment exceeding what we would expect from a 2:1 ratio.
    • London and Scotland receive above-average levels of state investment but have lower- than-average levels of business investment.
    • The East Midlands, the West Midlands and North West England are business-led innovation regions with business investment in R&D at or above the UK average but low levels of public investment.
    • Wales, Yorkshire and the Humber, and North East England are regional economies with notably low R&D intensities in both the market and non-market-led sectors.
    • South West England and Northern Ireland sit between these two groups with similarly low levels of public investment but slightly higher private sector spending on R&D.

    A single sentence can summarise the extent to which the UK’s public R&D spending is centralised in just three cities. The UK regions and subregions containing London, Oxford and Cambridge account for 46 per cent of public and charitable R&D in the UK, but just 31 per cent of business R&D and 21 per cent of the population.

    How the current funding system has led to inequality

    The current situation is the result of a combination of deliberate policy decisions and a natural dynamic in which these small preferences combined with initial advantages are reinforced with time.

    For example, of a series of major capital investments in research infrastructure between 2007 and 2014, 71 per cent was made in London, the East and South East of England, through a process criticised by the National Audit Office. The need for continuing revenue funding to support these investments lock in geographical imbalances in R&D for many years.

    Imbalanced investment in R&D is, at most, only part of why the UK’s regional economic divides widened in the past and have failed to close in recent decades. But it is a factor that the government can influence. It has failed to do so. Where attempts have been made to use R&D to balance the UK’s economic strengths, they have been insufficient in scale. For example, in the 2000s the English regional development agencies allocated funding with preference to regions with weaker economies, but their total R&D spend was equivalent to just 1.6 per cent of the national R&D budget. These efforts could never have hoped to succeed. Unsurprisingly, and in contrast to vastly larger schemes in Germany, they failed.

    We need to do things differently

    The sums needed to rebalance R&D spending across the nation are substantial. A crude calculation shows that to level up per capita public spending on R&D across the nations and regions of the UK to the levels currently achieved in London, the South East and East England, additional spending of more than £4 billion would be needed: £1.6 billion would need to go to the North of England, £1.4 billion to the Midlands, £420 million to Wales, £580 million to South West England and £250 million to Northern Ireland. Spending in Scotland would be largely unchanged.

    These numbers give a sense of the scale of the problem, but equalising per capita spending is not the only possible criterion for redistributing funding.

    We want people to explore other criteria that might guide thinking on where UK public sector and charity spending on R&D is generating the most value possible. The online tool accompanying this paper models different geographical distributions of public R&D spending obtained according to the weight attached to factors such as research excellence, following business R&D spending, targeting economic convergence and investing more where the manufacturing sector is stronger.

    Importantly, we do not propose that UK R&D funding is assigned purely by algorithm. We have found that the scale of current imbalances in funding and the scale by which current spending fails to meet even its own stated goal of funding excellence are widely underappreciated. Our tool aims to inform and challenge, not replace existing systems.

    To spread the economic benefits of innovation across the whole of the UK, changes are needed. These will include a commitment to greater transparency on how funding decisions are made in the government’s existing research funding agencies, an openness to a broader range of views on how this might change and devolution of innovation funding at a sufficient scale to achieve a better fit with local opportunities.

    For the full paper, see The Missing £4 billion: making R&D work for the whole UK.

    The white heat of technology vs the cronut economy: two views on the productivity slowdown

    A review of two books on innovation:

  • Windows of Opportunity: how nations create wealth, by David Sainsbury
  • Fully Grown: why a stagnant economy is a sign of success, by Dietrich Vollrath

  • As I write, the world economy is in a medically induced coma, as governments struggle to deal with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. But not everything was rosy in the developed world’s economies before the pandemic; the long term picture was one of declining labour productivity leading to stagnating living standards. Even after the pandemic has passed these problems will remain. These two books highlight the problem of falling productivity, but take diametrically opposing views about what’s caused the problem, and indeed on whether it is a problem at all.

    Where does productivity growth come from? An obvious answer is the development of new technologies. The late medieval invention of the blast furnace increased the amount of iron a man could produce a day by about a factor of 10. In the 18th century Richard Arkwright invented the water frame, and a single machine in his factory could do the work of tens or hundreds of spinners of yarn working at home. More recently, we’ve seen the work of scores of clerks, calculators and typists being replaced by inexpensive computers.

    But Dietrich Vollrath cautions us against equating productivity growth with technology: “From the perspective of economic growth, the word technology doesn’t mean anything. There is productivity growth, and that’s it.” At the centre of Vollrath’s book is an eloquent exposition of what’s become the mainstream economic theory of growth, originating with the work of Robert Solow, leading the the counterintuitive, but essentially comforting, conclusion that the slowdown in productivity we are living through is a sign of success, not failure.

    Vollrath’s book is a pleasure to read. It contains the clearest explanations I’ve ever read of the central concepts of growth accounting, such as what’s meant by “constant returns to scale”, and the significance of the Solow residual. His highlighting of the effect of demographic changes on productivity growth in the USA is illuminating and convincing (though of course this is USA centred and other countries will have different experiences). Yet I think it is too quick to dismiss the possibility that the slowdown in productivity growth we’ve seen in developed countries across the world is related to a real slow down in the rate of technological progress.

    David Sainsbury, unlike Dietrich Vollrath, is not an academic economist. As a former UK Science Minister, he looks to economic theory as a guide to policy, and he doesn’t like what he sees. To Sainsbury, the Solow theory, and its later elaborations, are bound to fail, because they fail to appreciate the complexity and heterogeneity of production in the modern world – in these theories, “it doesn’t matter whether a firm is producing potato chips or microchips”. The aim of Sainsbury’s book is to “look more closely at why neoclassical growth theory has proved such a poor guide to policy makers seeking to increase the growth rates of their countries, and why it is of so little use in explaining the growth performance of countries”.

    For Sainsbury, the key to economic growth is to be found at the level of firms – “a nation’s standard of living depends on the ability of its firms to attain a high and rising level of value-added per capita in the industries in which they compete”. Firms can do this by innovating to develop process improvements which drive up their productivity compared to their rivals. Or they can identify new market opportunities that open up as a result of technological developments.

    These technological opportunities are uneven – at any given time, one industry may be seeing dramatic increases in technological change (for example the ICT industry in the second half of the twentieth century), while other industry sectors may be relatively stagnating. The crucial trick is to identify those sectors where technological capabilities, together with matching market opportunities, open up the “windows of opportunity” of the book’s title.

    For Paul Romer and subsequent economists, what’s important for innovation is market power. As Vollrath discusses, market power is required for a firm to be able to innovate, because without market power the firm cannot charge the mark-ups it needs to compensate for the costs of innovation. “Without mark-ups there is no incentive to invest in R&D… Without R&D there are no non-rival innovations. And without non-rival innovations, there is no productivity growth.”

    In Vollrath’s account, market power can arise from government intervention, particularly through the assignment of intellectual property rights – the time-limited legal monopoly granted companies to profit from their inventions. It can also arise through the difficulty of reproducing manufacturing processes, because of the tacit knowledge inherent in them. But too much market power can limit innovation, too. As patent law in the USA has changed, more and more trivial innovations have become patentable, while the existence of “patent troll” firms, whose entire business model consists of suing firms for infringing their patent portfolio, demonstrates that too-lax intellectual property rights can lead to unproductive rent-seeking as well as innovation. For Vollrath, permissive patenting and a weakening of competition law have probably pushed the USA beyond the point at which too much market power leads to diminishing returns.

    What about the role of the government? For Vollrath, the government’s main role is to tax and regulate, and in a rather unexciting chapter he concludes that there’s no real evidence that over-taxation or over-regulation has had a material effect on productivity growth either way. The role of the government in driving innovation is entirely omitted.

    But governments have a crucial role here. The US government spent $121 billion on R&D in 2017 – and that wasn’t just academic research in universities; $24 billion worth of R&D carried out in companies was directly paid for by the federal government. I’ve discussed before (in my post “The semiconductor industry and economic growth theory”) how crucial government investment was in creating the semiconductor industry.

    Unsurprisingly, Sainsbury, as a former science minister, has a lot more to say about the way government spending on R&D can underpin a wider innovation system, identifying a fall of federal funds for research as a share of GDP as one factor underlying the USA’s declining innovation performance. The sections in his book on sectoral, national, regional and city innovation systems, carry both the positives and negatives of being written by a policy insider – very well informed, but with an occasional sense of defending the writer’s record in office. Sainsbury’s chapter on skills, though, is outstanding, reflecting the attention he and his foundation have given this important topic since leaving his government role.

    The neglect of government’s role in R&D in Vollrath’s book is consistent with his wider tendency to downplay technological innovation as a source of productivity growth. Instead, at the centre of his argument, is the idea that the productivity slowdown has arisen largely as a result of an economic shift from manufacturing to services, and that this is a good thing. Manufacturing tends to have faster productivity growth than services, so if more of the economy moves towards services, then necessarily average productivity growth will fall. But, to Vollrath, this represents the outcomes of rational choices by consumers, the natural and positive outcome of a fully grown economy.

    To understand this switch, we need to look to the work of the economist William Baumol. As I discussed in a previous post (“A toy model of Baumol’s cost disease”), Baumol introduced the important (but misleadingly named) concept of “cost disease”. If an economy has two sectors, one with fast productivity growth (for example in manufacturing) and another with much slower or non-existent growth (typically in services), then the sector with slower productivity growth will become relatively more expensive. It’s plausible to suggest that people will respond to this, in the context of the general increase in prosperity resulting from higher productivity in manufacturing, by buying more services, despite their greater relative cost. Hence there’s a tendency for the economy to become more weighted (by the value of their output) to services.

    Of course, this process has going on for centuries. Huge increases in the productivity with which we can produce of food, simple manufactured goods like textiles and homewares, and successively more technologically complex goods like cars and consumer electronics, mean that their prices have collapsed relative to personal services. Vollrath’s argument is that this process reached some kind of critical point in the year 2000: “what changed in 2000 was that the share of economic activity [of services] had reached such a high level that the drag on productivity growth from this shift finally became tangible.” There doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to support this particular timing.

    But there’s one important feature of Baumol’s argument that doesn’t emerge clearly at all in Vollrath’s book: that’s the way in which Baumol’s mechanism effectively transfers value from sectors with high productivity growth to sectors to sectors with low productivity growth. To illustrate this, let’s look at Vollrath’s prime example of an innovation not dependent on high technology, that has nonetheless raised productivity – the Cronut. For those of us outside the USA, I need to explain that a Cronut is a new kind of bun invented in New York, consisting of a deep-fried torus of croissant dough (the estimable British bakery chain Gregg’s trialed a similar confection in the UK, but it didn’t catch on). “I don’t know if Cronuts count as technology, but I do know they raised productivity because they led people to put a higher value on a given set of raw inputs”.

    It’s worth thinking through where this higher value comes from. We need to begin by being precise about what we mean by productivity. A non-economist might think of productivity in terms of the number of cronuts a worker might produce a day. This is the kind of productivity that can be increased by automation. Croissant dough consists of a laminate of many layers of yeast-leavened bread dough separated by butter, quite labour-intensive to make by hand, but using a mechanical dough-sheeter would greatly increase a worker’s output. To an economist like Vollrath, it isn’t this kind of output productivity that’s being talked about, though. For an economist, productivity is measured in terms of the money value of the output. If you run a small bakery, and you increase your output tenfold by installing a dough-sheeter, as long as you have a market to sell your increased output at the same price, you have increased both types of productivity – you produce more cronuts, and you make more money.

    But in the long term, and over whole economies, output productivity and money productivity don’t behave in the same way, because of Baumol’s cost disease mechanism. One might suspect that our New York artisanal cronut makers resist the lure of industrial dough-sheeters and the like, and rely on the same technologies that their nineteenth century antecedents did. Although the output productivity of their baked and deep fried goods would be unchanged, the real money value of what they produce would be greater, just because of Baumol’s cost disease.

    To the extent that patisserie has seen low growth in its output productivity since the 19th century, while there have been order of magnitude increases in the number of motor cars or record players or washing machines produced by a single worker, the artisanal patisserie sector will have been affected by Baumol’s cost disease. This will have raised the relative price of cronuts compared to a basket of other manufactured products, whose sectors have seen much bigger productivity increases. Thus the reason that cronuts cost more in 21st century New York than they would have in 19th century Paris (where the technology to make them certainly existed) is because of the 20th century revolution in productivity in other sectors.

    So, one very effective way to increase money productivity in sectors with low output productivity growth is to increase the output productivity growth in some other sector. It’s not so much that a rising tide lifts all boats, but that the leading sectors pull everything else along behind them. For this reason, I think Vollrath underestimates the importance of sectors seeing rapid growth in output productivity – the very sectors that Sainsbury stresses one should support and emphasise in his book.

    It is, of course, unfortunate that Vollrath has written an essentially optimistic book about the economy that’s been released precisely at the moment of a historically unprecedented economic downturn. But there is a much more serious omission.

    There’s not a single mention in the book of the problem of climate change, or the challenge of transitioning a world economy that depends on fossil fuels to low carbon energy sources. In talking about the inputs to economic growth, Vollrath says “we could also consider the stocks of natural resources, but these are bit players in the story”. This comment is very telling.

    Energy is relatively very much cheaper now than it was a few hundred years ago. The technology of extracting fossil fuels has allowed many more units of energy to be extracted for a given set of inputs – most recently, for example, in the fracking revolution that has transformed the USA’s energy economy. So, following Baumol’s principle, the relative price of energy has fallen.

    But this doesn’t mean the relative importance of energy has dropped with the price – as we will find out if we have to do without it. If we don’t find – through large scale technological innovation – zero carbon alternative sources of energy at lower cost to fossil fuels, we will either have to suffer the loss of living standards – and indeed loss of life – that will follow from unmitigated climate change, or we will have to accept that economic growth will go into reverse. Energy prices will increase and we will all be worse off.

    In fact, Vollrath doesn’t just underestimate the role of technological innovation in growth up to now, he’s actually positively sceptical about whether we need any more: “given our current life expectancy and living standards the risks inherent in any technology … may not be worth pursuing just to add a fraction of a percentage point to the growth rate”. On this, I think he could not be more wrong. We urgently need new technology, not to add a percentage point to the growth rate, but precisely so we can maintain our current life expectancy and living standards – not to mention allow the rest of the world to enjoy what we, in rich countries, take for granted.

    A toy model of Baumol’s cost disease

    I’ve recently read Dietrich Vollrath’s book “Fully Grown: why a stagnant economy is a sign of success”. It’s interesting and well-written, though I’m not entirely convinced by the conclusion that the sub-title summarises. I’ll write more about that later, but it did prompt me to think more about Baumol’s cost disease, something I’ve written about in an earlier post: How cheaper steel makes nights out more expensive (and why that’s a good thing).

    In this well-known phenomenon, a differential in productivity growth rate between goods and services leads both to the cost of services relative to goods increasing, and to services taking a larger share of the economy. It’s this shift of the economy from high-productivity-growth goods manufacturing into low-productivity-growth services that Vollrath ascribes part of our current growth slowdown to, and he thinks this is entirely positive.

    Vollrath introduces a simple toy model to think about Baumol’s cost disease. It’s simple enough to express this mathematically, but when you do this it produces some apparently paradoxical results. I think reflecting on these paradoxes can give some insight into the difficulties of measuring growth in an economy in which one sector advances much faster than another. As I’ve written before, this highly uneven technological progress is very characteristic of our economy, where, for example, we’ve seen orders of magnitude increase in computing power in the last century, while in other sectors, like construction, little has changed. For the mathematical details, see these notes (PDF) – here I summarise some of the main results. Continue reading “A toy model of Baumol’s cost disease”

    UK ARPA: An experiment in science policy?

    This essay was published yesterday as part of a collection called “Visions of ARPA”, by the think-tank Policy Exchange, in response to the commitment of the UK government to introduce a new science funding agency devoted to high risk, high return projects, modelled on the US agency DARPA (originally ARPA). All the essays are well worth reading; the other authors are William Bonvillian, Julia King (Baroness Brown), two former science ministers, David Willetts and Jo Johnson, Nancy Rothwell and Luke Georghiou, and Tim Bradshaw. My thanks to Iain Sinclair for editing.

    The UK’s research and innovation funding agency – UKRI – currently spends £7 billion a year supporting R&D in universities, public sector research establishments and private industry [1]. The Queen’s Speech in December set out an intention to increase substantially public funding for R&D, with the goal of raising the R&D intensity of the UK economy – including public and private spending – from its current level of 1.7% of GDP to a target of 2.4%. It’s in this context that we should judge the Government’s intention to introduce a new approach, providing “long term funding to support visionary high-risk, high-pay off scientific, engineering, and technology ideas”. What might this new approach – inevitably described as a British version of the legendary US funding agency DARPA – look like?

    If we want to support visionary research, whose applications may be 10-20 years away, we should be prepared to be innovative – even experimental – in the way we fund research. And just as we need to be prepared for research not to work out as planned, we should be prepared to take some risks in the way we support it, especially if the result is less bureaucracy. There are some lessons to take from the long (and, it needs to be stressed, not always successful) history of ARPA/DARPA. To start with its operating philosophy, an agency inspired by ARPA should be built around the vision of the programme managers. But the operating philosophy needs to be underpinned by as enduring mission and clarity about who the primary beneficiaries of the research should be. And finally, there needs to be a deep understanding of how the agency fits into a wider innovation landscape. Continue reading “UK ARPA: An experiment in science policy?”

    More reactions to “Resurgence of the Regions”

    The celebrity endorsement of my “Resurgence of the regions” paper has led to a certain amount of press interest, which I summarise here.

    The Times Higher naturally focuses on the research policy issues. I’m interviewed in the piece “Tory election victory sets scene for UK research funding battle”, which focuses on a perceived tension between a continuing emphasis on supporting “excellence” and disruptive innovation based on existing centres, and my agenda of boosting R&D in the regions to redress productivity imbalances.

    Peter Franklin asks, in UnHerd, “Is this the Tories’ real manifesto?”

    “Alas, no”, I expect is the answer to that question, but this article does a really great job of summarising the content of my paper. It also includes this hugely generous quotation from Stian Westlake: “The mini-storm over Dom Cummings citing @RichardALJones’s recent paper on innovation policy prompted me to re-read it, and *boy* is it good. I agree with more or less everything, and as a bonus it is delightfully written… On a couple of occasions I’ve been asked by a new science minister ‘what should I read on innovation?’, and it was always quite a hard question to answer. But now, I’d just say ‘read that’.”

    I suspect Franklin’s excellent article was instrumental in focusing some wider attention on my paper. The Sunday Times’s Economics Editor, David Smith, agreed that “A renewed focus on innovation can deliver a resurgence in the regions”, while Oliver Wright, in the Times, focused on the industrial strategy implications of the net zero greenhouse gas target, and in particular nuclear energy, in a piece entitled “Reinvigorate north with nuclear power stations”.

    It was left to Alan Lockey, writing in CapX, to point out the tension between the government activism I call for and more traditional laissez-faire Conservative attitudes, putting this tension at the centre of what he called “The coming battle for modern Conservatism”. On the one hand, Lockey described the arguments as being “a bit boring”, “comfort-zone industrial policy instincts of Ed Miliband-era social democracy” from “a hitherto politically obscure physicist”… but he also found it “as an object lesson in how to construct an expansive and data-rich case for systemic public policy change … pretty near faultless. The ideas too, I find to be entirely unproblematic”. As he later graciously put it on Twitter, “I was merely just trying to convey that it seemed less controversial perhaps to those of us who are, basically, boring social democrats who see nothing wrong with industrial activism!”