Science funding: Will ‘picking winners’ work?

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In the 1980s, a Conservative government planned to make Britain’s computer industry the best i the world by subsidising its research

An ambitious Conservative minister has set out a strategy to turn the UK’s scientific expertise into new products and services that will generate jobs and wealth for the economy.

That was in 1983. The minister was Kenneth Clarke, who launched the £350m Alvey programme. It was designed to propel Britain to the forefront of advanced computing.

But the policy of government subsidies for the research and development of favoured companies – known as “picking winners” – did not fit in with Margaret Thatcher’s policy of introducing free market principles to the economy. Five years after its inception, the government pulled the plug on the Alvey programme.

Thirty five years on, another Mr Clark, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, announced £140m to support collaboration between industry and academia in the so-called life sciences sector, which develops innovative new medical treatments.

The money was announced earlier this year – but details were revealed on Wednesday, to great fanfare.

“The life sciences industry is the most successful and most important we know,” Mr Clark told reporters.

“Demand for this is going to increase in the years ahead, so what we are doing is to support a collaboration to get breakthroughs for patients and also create jobs.”

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BBC /Pounceford

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The government’s 1980s industrial strategy was led by an ambitious young minster, Ken Clarke

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