Dr Kieron Flanagan, lecturer in Science and Technology Policy at Manchester Business School, brought his insight and expertise around innovation, policy and funding along with his views on the industrial future for the region to our last Vital Topics event with FT journalist, Peter Marsh.
Graphene – a new material extracted from graphite, a two-dimensional sheet of carbon a single atom thick – is exciting many minds around the world. The fact it was first extracted by University of Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, a feat for which the pair won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, is great news for the UK and the Manchester city-region, but is it enough to lead a Graphene-driven industrial revolution here?
Some have suggested that with the headstart offered by Geim and Novoselov’s achievement and the fact the new £61m National Graphene Institute will be located here, Manchester may be on the brink of becoming ‘Graphene valley’, the natural location for the commercialisation of all that knowledge and know-how. Not surprisingly, Graphene is at the heart of the Manchester city-region’s new vision of itself as a sciencebased economy, making a great hook for advertising campaigns.
Significant new investment in research and associated facilities can only be a good thing for the city-region. UK government research funding is highly skewed towards the “Golden Triangle” of London, Oxford and Cambridge, so the announcement of a ‘national’ research institute in Manchester is a rare and welcome one.
However, innovation-driven local economic development depends on much more than excellent research, and while great work will be done at the new institute, with real economic benefits for the city, the odds are against it sparking a Graphene-driven Mancunian industrial revolution. Far more Graphene research is being done elsewhere than is being done in Manchester or the UK – and that will hold true no matter how much is invested here.
The most likely early applications of Graphene are expected to be in microelectronics. The majority of this industry is located outside of the UK and Manchester’s microelectronics industry vanished decades ago. Of course start-up firms can and are being encouraged, and a successful start-up or spin-off might radically change the industry ecosystem. And there may be other, yet unknown, applications for Graphene where Manchester may have real advantages.
Graphene research in Manchester is genuinely exciting but the odds are that much of the economic success deriving from the successful commercialisation of the substance will be felt elsewhere. And this is normal: science and technology are global enterprises, albeit concentrated in a relatively few key nodes around the world. There is no reason to suppose that discovery, commercialisation and innovation should happen in the same place, but it is vitally important that Manchester should be such a node in order to tap into what is going on elsewhere.
In making strategies for the economic development of the city-region it is important to remember that success in science will not be automatically followed by economic success. It is merely a ticket into global science and technology networks – which in itself is important enough.