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UK's industry strategy: 'plenty of scope for photonics'

30 Nov 2017

New Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund set to invest £725m in high-tech program.

UK's new Industrial Strategy.

UK's new Industrial Strategy.

The UK's Business Secretary Greg Clark this week launched the government’s Industrial Strategy, a white paper entitled Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future.

In it the government committed to investing £725 million over the coming three years in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund "to respond to some of the greatest global challenges and the opportunities faced by the UK". Notable objectives are the construction sector (to receive £170 million) and early diagnosis of illnesses and precision medicine (£210 million).

The government had previously committed £1 billion in the first wave of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund projects, including investing £246 million in next-gen battery technology and £86 million for robotics hubs across the country.

The white paper also confirmed that the government intends to progress a series of "Sector Deals", with construction, life sciences, automotive and AI the first sectors to benefit from these partnerships with government, backed by private sector co-investment.


Considering photonics-related industrial ambitions, the 255-page Industrial Strategy document contains several sections recognizing such technologies and associated government aims:

  • p. 51 “We will continue to invest in R&D and testbed infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles. We will explore how simulated digital environments can support and accelerate development of self-driving technology through an R&D competition to be launched by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, the first R&D competition of its kind in Europe.”
  • p. 84 “There are substantial established and emerging research clusters across the UK including universities such as Leicester for space, Abertay for video games, and Glyndwr for precision optics.”
  • p. 86 “Science & Innovation Audit Themes; Oxfordshire: Transformative Technologies Quantum computers; autonomous vehicles; digital health; and space and satellites.”
  • p. 212 “We will establish a new Future Sectors team that will lead work across sectors that are developing and using the technologies and business models of the future. Creating new ways for citizens to engage with public services, as identified in the Digital Strategy, and including the use of Blockchain and AI technologies and quantum technologies.”


On scientific collaborations and business relations with Europe in relation to “Brexit”, which is currently expected to occur in March 2019, the document states:

  • p. 24 “Britain’s future has to be one of free trade with the whole world, including with the rest of Europe. The EU accounts for the largest proportion of UK trade. The size and proximity of the EU single market and our close connections with it mean the EU will always be a major trading partner.
  • p. 90 “The UK will also take on the annual chairmanship of the EUREKA intergovernmental organisation in July 2018, which will enable us to guide the strategic direction of the organization to enhance further our global presence.”
  • p. 91 “Through the EU Horizon 2020 the UK has received 20 per cent of all awarded European Research Council grants; we have attracted €3.6bn to date for our innovative businesses and universities. The UK wants to continue to take part in those specific policies and programs that are greatly to the UK and the EU’s joint advantage, such as those that promote science, education and culture.”
  • p. 125 “The actions and approaches that we have set out will be more critical as the UK exits the European Union and look to improve the levels of skills of our workforce to meet the opportunities and challenges ahead. We want to continue to be an attractive destination for the world’s most talented and innovative people.”

Professional body reactions

A range of responses to both the industrial strategy and the UK’s latest budget announcements were published by several technical and scientific industry groups and associations.

The UK Photonics Leadership Group, which has been looking to set up a "sector deal", reacted by saying that the strategic plan offered plenty of scope for photonics, adding: “The industrial strategy: building a Britain for the future outlines 5 foundations for UK growth down from the 10 pillars in the original green paper. The strategy further outlines the overall grand challenges / global trends which government sees as presenting significant opportunity for UK industry to take lead on innovation.

“These will attract £725million in support from the industrial strategy challenge fund:

  • Artificial intelligence and the data economy – which requires breakthroughs in optical communications to deliver more data (capacity) in real-time (latency).
  • Clean Growth – which needs next generation photovoltaic technologies and LED lighting that can be seamlessly integrated into buildings and the wider adoption of highly efficient laser cutting marking and welding in manufacturing.
  • Future of Mobility – where dependable autonomous vehicles will need fail save camera and laser sensors to work in all weathers, in all locations, at all times of day that can be built seamlessly into vehicles at low-cost and huge volume.
  • Ageing population – where photonics is critical for non-intrusive predictive pre-clinical diagnosis enabling efficient healthcare delivery in the community.

The PLG further stated, “These challenges closely align with the PLG’s recently published Grand Photonics Challenges.

The UK’s Institute of Physics commented that it welcomed an increase in research and development investment of £2.3bn for 2021/22 announced in the UK Government’s Autumn Budget: “This extra investment for 2021/22 raises total public investment in R&D to £12.5 billion for that year alone.”

“Today, as part of its Industrial Strategy, the government has pledged to work with industry to boost spending on R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, supported by wider investment in skills and technical education. Published this morning, the Industrial Strategy White Paper - designed to empower our universities and businesses to create the next generation of technologies - set out five ‘foundations of productivity’: Ideas, People, Infrastructure, Business Environment and Places.

"In support of the 2.4% GDP target by 2027, the strategy outlines a raft of initiatives covering these five foundations. This includes a new £115m Strength in Places Fund to support areas to build on their science and innovation strengths and develop stronger local networks - plus a further £725m in a second wave of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Programme with two new sector areas; Clean Growth and AI.

Professor Paul Hardaker, IOP Chief Executive Officer, said: “The boost to research and development is a very welcome signal of how Government will deliver its Manifesto pledge of 2.4% of GDP to be spent on public and private R&D.

“The Industrial Strategy blueprint published today is also very welcome. It will not only benefit the science and innovation community but is good news for UK jobs, productivity and growth as a whole. But getting from 1.7 to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 requires careful staging - it must be provided in ways that will deliver the greatest impact. We also need to ensure that we can continue to both grow and attract people with the right skills - and excellence must underpin all that we do."

The UK Campaign for Science And Engineering responded to the Budget as follows: “The budget announces an incremental one year increase to the four year block of R&D investment announced at the last autumn statement through the National Productivity Investment Fund. If they continue on this trajectory, the government will be on target for R&D investment to rise over the next ten years to reach parity with our international competitors at 2.4% of GDP.”

CaSE Executive Director, Dr Sarah Main, said: “It's great to see the government putting its money on research and innovation as the UK's competitive edge. Today's announcement is another step on their way to an ambitious goal - although we should remember that goal will only bring us in line with the average level of R&D investment of other scientific nations.

“Such sizeable public investment brings a responsibility to spend it effectively. The new money is to be spent on modes of challenge-led funding that are relatively untested. It will be important to establish mechanisms to ensure these funds are well spent and to grow the UK's tried and tested research funding mechanisms to meet research priorities as well as political priorities.

She added, “To reach their target of R&D investment across the economy of 2.4% of GDP, the government must attract private investment of over £8bn of globally-mobile R&D budgets. To continue to invest here through the uncertainty of Brexit, research-intensive companies are clear that the UK must provide a competitive economy with a healthy research base and immigration and regulation systems that support international R&D.”

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

LaCroix Precision OpticsLASEROPTIK GmbHABTechECOPTIKBerkeley Nucleonics CorporationCeNing Optics Co LtdUniverse Kogaku America Inc.
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