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Dowling Fellowship launch: UK innovation and scaling up

10 June 2022

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Dowling Fellowship launch: UK innovation and scaling up

Reported by Victor Lovic, CSaP Policy Intern and Jessica Foster, CSaP Communications Coordinator

The first meeting of the CSaP Dowling Policy Fellowship took place at Downing College, Cambridge on 6 May 2022. The event brought together the inaugural Dowling Policy Fellows for a lunchtime discussion on UK innovation with Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Tim Minshall, Dr John C Taylor Professor of Innovation and Head of the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

The lunchtime discussion explored the definition of "innovation" and how the UK is succeeding, and failing, in supporting innovation at all scales. Professor Dowling firstly explained that she sees innovation as “the way in which ideas are turned into value”, defining “value” as new products, processes or policies that help accompany financial success, or solutions to society’s grand challenges like climate change. She said the crucial role of industry and engineering is turning research ideas into valuable technologies and products, explaining that innovation is not just the domain of academics - but crucially of industry. Professor Dowling also emphasised the important role the government plays in “scaling up”, referring to the COVID-19 vaccines as a successful example of how government and businesses can work together on this mission. This raised the following question: do you need a crisis or catastrophe to help drive large-scale innovation success?

Professor Dame Ann Dowling and Professor Tim Minshall (left), Professor Matthew Juniper speaking to Dowling Fellows (right), University Cambridge

There was a sense among the Dowling Policy Fellows, speaking from personal experience as investors and entrepreneurs, that the UK had “improved dramatically” when it comes to supporting early-stage innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, there is much more venture capital available to early-stage companies, than even ten years ago. Professor Dowling noted however, the difference between funding small or medium-size companies and supporting larger scale innovation projects. For example, small modular nuclear reactors are a promising technology for generating clean energy, but they require large and long-term investment which governments are uniquely able to provide. It was clear that while measurable progress has been made on innovation policy in the UK, the ability to scale-up and change societal attitudes needs greater focus and attention.

"Progress has been staggering, but it's the scaling up that's the issue." - Professor Tim Minshall

The lunch discussion was followed by a series of meetings with academics from the University of Cambridge about their work. In the first, Matthew Juniper, Professor of Thermofluids Dynamics, discussed the importance of agility in research, using his own expertise on improving magnetic resonance imaging as an example. Professor Juniper described how he was able to apply ideas from his field of fluid dynamics to analysing MRI data. His presentation was followed by a discussion with the Dowling Policy Fellows on the exciting commercial applications of this research.

For the second meeting, Brian Zheng Zhang, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF), delivered a presentation on his work leading the Centre. He said its goal is to understand current trends in alternative finance to help shape policy and regulation. He defined the term “fintech” as any advances in technology that transforms the provision of financial services. For example, modern crowdfunding was created by the internet, and Dr Zhang helped produce the first benchmarking report in the field. This and follow-up reports generated much interest, which led to the creation of the CCAF to study other trends in alternative finance, including crypto. The meeting concluded with the Dowling Policy Fellows drawing on their real-world experiences of fintech and its regulation.

The final meeting was a discussion with Mateja Jamnik, Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer Science and Technology and Professor Stephen Cave, Director at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. They discussed the social impacts of AI, its definition and distinguishing AI from machine learning. The academics explained that a central concern about the social impact of AI is bias - AI systems that are fed biased data produce biased results. Dr Cave explained that such systems can be deployed at large scale, which increases the stakes of deploying these systems. Professor Jamnik concluded with two questions which she recommends investors ask themselves when evaluating an AI system. First, is machine learning really necessary? And second, are you being mindful of the data that is being fed into the system?

Jessica Foster

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge

Victor Lovic

Imperial College London