Innovating our way to Net Zero: Insights from a Policy Workshop

4 November 2022


Innovating our way to Net Zero: Insights from a Policy Workshop

Reported by Florence Robinson Adams, Policy Assistant at CSaP

In June 2022, the Centre for Science and Policy and Laura Diaz Anadon, Professor of Climate Change Policy at the University of Cambridge and Director of CEENRG, delivered a policy workshop on strengthening the UK’s innovation ecosystem in the energy space to meet the government’s net zero target.  This event brought together senior policy and academic experts from the UK, Europe, and the US to share and analyse the most up to date evidence, identify policy implications, and propose next steps. 

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss key steps the UK could take to strengthen its innovation ecosystem to jointly address the country’s climate, productivity, and fairness goals at a crucial moment in time for the climate and for the UK’s role in the world.

The first roundtable focused on the centrality of national laboratories (specialist institutions responsible for conducting research and development and tackling difficult problems beyond the capabilities of private industry or individual universities). The UK has over 25 national labs at present, which provide government and business with expert advice and accelerate research and innovation across the country.

The second roundtable focused on the design features of the proposed ARPA-style research agency in the UK – ARIA. The possibility of a UK version of ARPA was put high on the government agenda by Dominic Cummings during his time as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister. The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) was devised in February 2021 and will be tasked with funding high-risk, high-reward research to facilitate the development of breakthrough technologies in emerging fields.

Finally, participants explored what other options the UK might consider for fostering innovation. Further discussion coalesced around three key ideas: the importance of integrating sub-national perspectives of climate and energy innovation, the trade-offs between political, economic, and technological goals, and the potential for the UK to benefit from more innovative funding mechanisms.

Three key takeaways emerged at the end of the discussion:
  • Urgency: Participants agreed that the current set of institutions in the UK’s innovation ecosystem is insufficient if we want to achieve net zero targets and were keen to stress the urgency with which we need to reform and restructure UK institutions if we want to achieve net zero targets.

  • Researcher autonomy: Participants agreed that there is a clear need for flexibility and researcher autonomy if we want to encourage clean energy innovation. This can be encouraged, for example, by low-hierarchical challenge-oriented funding structures based on the model of ARPA-E. This flexibility, however, must be paired with clearly defined metrics of success.

  • Place-based policy: Participants shared the concern that at present the UK biases research and innovation funding towards the South-East, and that this approach fails to address the social challenges inherent in achieving net zero. A closer collaboration between national and local government, along with an increase in regional autonomy, will be necessary to achieve net zero targets.

Read the full report here.

Image credit: NASA on Unsplash

Florence Robinson Adams

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge