Knowledge is power – economic power – and there’s a scramble for that power taking place around the globe.
In the United States, Europe and in rising powers such as China, there is a growth-hungry drive to invest in hi-tech research and innovation.
They are looking for the ingredients that, like Google, will turn a university project into a corporation. They are looking for the jobs that will replace those lost in the financial crash.
Not to invest would now be “unthinkable”, says Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European commissioner responsible for research, innovation and science, who is trying to spur the European Union to keep pace in turning ideas into industries.
She has announced £6bn funding to kick-start projects next year – with the aim of supporting 16,000 universities, research teams and businesses. A million new research jobs will be needed to match global rivals in areas such as health, energy and the digital economy.
Emphasising that this is about keeping up, rather than grandstanding, she talks about Europe facing an “innovation emergency”.
“In China, you see children going into school at 6.30am and being there until 8 or 9pm, concentrating on science, technology and maths. And you have to ask yourself, would European children do that?
“That’s the competition that’s out there. We have to rise to that – and member states have to realise that the knowledge economy is the economy that is going to create the jobs in the future, it’s the area they have to invest in.”
But the challenge for Europe, she says, is to be able to commercialise ideas as successfully as the United States, in the manner of the iPhone or Facebook.
The commissioner says that she was made abruptly aware of the barriers facing would-be innovators at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony dinner.
Instead of basking in the reflected glory of a prize winner funded by European grants, she said she had to listen to a speech attacking the red-tape and bureaucracy – and “generally embarrassing the hell out of me”.
Determined that this would never happen again, she is driving ahead with a plan to simplify access to research funding and to turn the idea of a single European research area into a reality by 2014.
With storm clouds dominating the economic outlook, she sees investing in research and hi-tech industries – under the banner of the “Innovation Union” – as of vital practical importance in the push towards creating jobs and growth.
“We have to be able to say to the man and woman in the street, suffering intensely because of the economic crisis: this is a dark tunnel, but there is light at the end and we’re showing you where it is.”
There has been sharpening interest in this borderland between education and the economy.
This month the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) staged its inaugural Global Forum on the Knowledge Economy.
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