Earlier this year, we reported on the UK government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper, and what it could mean for the bioeconomy. The operative word was “could”, as the bioeconomy was rarely directly addressed in the document: the take-home message was a “wait and see”.
Now, almost a year later, and after a consultation period, the government have updated the policy proposals into a white paper, which will form the basis of subsequent policy decisions. Here, we discuss if anything has changed for the bioeconomy between the green and white papers.
There has been a significant change in the way the policies have been structured: the green paper was built around ten “pillars”, which has been reduced to five “foundations” and four “grand challenges”, but the contents remain similar.
Research & Innovation
The centrepiece of the paper is a commitment to Research & Development in the UK, celebrating the country’s position at the forefront of global scientific research. It laments the UK’s past failures to successfully commercialise its developments, but promises to change that. The government has pledged to raise R&D fundng to 2.4% of GDP within 10 years, but perhaps more importantly, they have announced a separate funding outlet in the form of the “Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund”. This £725m fund will allow the government to directly invest in sectors and projects where it believes the UK has potential to drive global development. One such sector the paper specifically mentions is “biotechnology”, which is great news for the UK bioeconomy, particularly in the bio-based chemicals and biopharmaceuticals sectors. Elsewhere, there is the announcement of a “sector deal” for Life Sciences. Though the focus is on health, advances in the broad area of life sciences could have positive knock-on effects for the bioeconomy: for example, improvements to genetic engineering could improve microbe-based processes such as anaerobic digestion and algal biofuels. There is also a commitment to grow “life science manufacturing”, with no indication of what this means.
Small Business Growth
Other signs were there that could be encouraging for bio-based companies, particularly SMEs, with £400m pledged to form a “Business Investment Bank” with the aim of assisting SMEs with scaling up. This monetary commitment is no longer present in the white paper, but a review into “the actions that could be most effective in improving the productivity and growth of small and medium-sized businesses” is promised, alongside a drive to invest billions of pounds into “innovative and high potential businesses”, although it is not clear whether this will be available to SMEs.
Another important aspect of successful SME development is the establishment of clusters and networks: these have been successful in the bioeconomy, such as the BioVale cluster in Yorkshire, and the white paper does feature a lot of intended support for clusters, which will be a welcome boost for bioeconomy SMEs, if the right policy support is established.
In the original green paper, one of the pillars was a commitment to “Improving Procurement”. This presented a great opportunity for UK bioeconomy companies to get involved in the wholesale infrastructure developments proposed in the paper. However, this pillar is no longer present in the white paper, and there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent policy. This is a disappointment, as there was an opportunity, particularly for SMEs, to establish themselves in the public sector, something that has been a rarity thus far in the bioeconomy.
One of the pillars of the green paper was a commitment to Clean Growth. This remains in the form of a “Grand Challenge” to “maximise the advantages for UK industry from the global shift to clean growth”. This was covered in much greater detail in BEIS’s recent Clean Growth Strategy, but the intention is to maximise economic growth and minimise environmental impact. This does not intrinsically mean growth of the bioeconomy, as the government’s banner is firmly planted in the camp of offshore wind farms and nuclear power where energy is concerned, and of electric and hydrogen powered cars as opposed to biofuels. However the paper does explicitly express s a desire for the UK to lead development in the bioeconomy, without expounding on what that actually means. A bioeconomy review is due in 2018, and so we will look forward to that with interest.
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