10th January 2023

We need fresh leaders if the UK is to become a “science superpower”

In his November Autumn Statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt doubled down on a commitment to grow research and development (R&D) in the UK by investing a sizeable £20bn into the sector by 2024/25.

The announcement prompted relief among UK businesses that had been waiting to see which funding pots would be slashed to help plug a growing fiscal black hole. Instead, the chancellor pledged to make the UK a “science superpower”, in what was the surest sign yet that the government sees research and development playing a central role in boosting the country’s economic credibility.

As part of the investment, Innovate UK – the UK’s national innovation agency that supports business growth and development across net zero, health living & agriculture and digital & technologies – received a 35% increase in funding for Catapults, totalling £1.6bn.

Catapults play a vital role in business growth, providing access to expertise and facilities for testing and development as well as channels to demonstrate new technologies and systems before taking them to market. The announcement will add new urgency to an ongoing hunt for talented individuals – particularly at a leadership level – as Catapults look to capitalise on the momentum generated by government support.

Assessing what kind of leaders these businesses will need as they expand presents challenges. Catapults are often technical organisations and technical ability often comes at the expense of leadership experience. By the same token, leaders often lack in-depth, specialist knowledge in relevant subject areas. Pragmatism is often rewarded, and it’s our view that those able to shape environments in which technical skills and talent can flourish that are best suited to lead, rather than the subject experts themselves.

Our hunch is borne about by research. Leadership expert and Harvard Professor Linda A. Hill led a near ten year piece of research studying exceptional leaders at innovative companies. She found that innovation thrived most in organisations that were set up to underpin growth from the bottom up, rather that dictating technical knowledge from the top down.

Steve Jobs, Co-Founder and CEO of Apple, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO, and James Dyson, Founder of Dyson, all are famous examples of serial entrepreneurs whose talents are rooted in their ability to build and grow businesses over their technical expertise – although admittedly they are no slouches when it comes to the technical aspects of their craft.

We have successful examples already. Ploughshare was set up 17 years ago to take on the increasing commercialisation activities being conducted by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

Sitting on its board is Chair Simon Devonshire OBE, a serial entrepreneur who was able to bring the right inspiration and business experience to the organisation, having previously ran O2 Business, the business division of the mobile network. He also co-founded Wayra Europe, the business accelerator belonging to Telefonica and worked as Entrepreneur in Residence at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

In addition to ambassadorial flare and passion for innovation, the right candidates will also hold critical relationship and stakeholder management skills, since many leaders in this space often act as a critical bridge between academic, private and government sectors.

All three have sectors very different motivations – one interested in developing and promoting research, another might be motivated by profit, and the other is likely looking to grow a sector – making it a complex area to get right. The right leader will be somebody who can work across these areas to bring people together and ensure innovations gets off the ground.

Attracting these candidates is no easy task. As a general rule pay, for example, isn’t as competitive as industry and this can act as a barrier for those currently active in the private sector. The rewards on offer for those who do make the move, however, are ample – particularly when you consider that Catapults are supporting some of the nation’s most exciting and cutting-edge innovations and start-ups that will ultimately drive the UK forward at a time when it needs it most.

We at McLean have seen first-hand how much of a success this can be for organisations. It’s also hugely successful for the candidates, who after returning to the industry have seen significant boosts to what they are able to request in remuneration.

Most importantly, though, they have a hand in shaping the UK’s economic fortune. Currently there are too few of these leaders so we must build them up and help fulfil the government’s ambition to make the UK a science superpower long into the future.

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