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Innovation "apps"

On this page we offer a number of proposals for improving Britain's competitiveness as an innovative nation.
However, for maximum benefit, they should be implemented at a European level.


1  Applied Research Institutes

2  Agile Academic fellowships

3  The National Innovation Competition

4   Fair Taxpayer status for businesses

5   Big data, jobs and skills

6   Soft skills certificates

7   Making learning big data interpretation skills fun


1  Applied Research Institutes

1.1 British universities are outstanding in their research performance, but our ability to convert important discoveries into wealth generating products is lamentable.

Successive governments have tried to solve this problem by providing generous university research funding for “win-win” collaborations between academia and industry.

The weakness in this funding strategy is that university academics and industrialists have different research cultures.

The main differences are highlighted in the following table where we refer to academic research for its own sake as pure, and research to meet industrial aims as applied.



Pure research

Applied research

Broad aim

The pursuit of knowledge,  pushing back the boundaries of the unknown.

To improve the business, especially by making it more profitable.

Primary audience

Peers in the same field of research.

Stakeholders in the company, especially the shareholders and customers.


Reproducibility and experimental design

Peers must be able to reproduce important research. Great care and time is taken, using standardised techniques and equipment.
Rigour is more important than speed.

The final consumer product must be safe & reliable but the research phase is secret. “No frills” research is fine, provided that the results can be trusted.
Winning the race to market is vital.


Measures of success

Produces a good output of respected research papers that are quoted by peers and generate new research questions for PhD students and others.


Makes the company stronger and shareholders wealthy

Funding allocation
Anonymous peer review of grant applications stifles innovation that threatens the status quo. In the private sector, shareholders expect research to attack the status quo.

Honourable failure

A research hypothesis is tested and fails.

The research indicates that a proposed solution an industrial problem is not viable.

Research workers in mature sciences are more likely to have a successful  career if        .................. They become specialists in a narrow field.
and  are sector leaders inside the r box.
They are generalists who can adapt their skills to the changing needs of business.
and they can think outside the box.

Financial test of research worth

It leads to funding for the next round of research.

It makes a profit for shareholders.

Emotional content Curiosity usually precedes discovery An emotional desire to solve a problem is important.

Relationship with the world of business and technology.

There is no pressure on researchers to meet commercial targets but world changing discoveries are sometimes made by accident.

If the research fails to solve a commercial problem it is abandoned.

Patents Often seen as a black art that threaten the openness of academic research. A knowledge of patenting strategy is vital in order to prevent important discoveries being squandered.


How British Universities perform.

We lead the world
(on a per head of the population basis) in terms of winning Nobel Prizes, publishing research papers and being cited by overseas researchers.

Universities have a poor record of converting brilliant discoveries into wealth and job creating technologies. e.g. the loss of world leads in exploiting graphene and liquid crystal displays.
“Win-win” collaborations with industry produce patchy results.

An exception: Not-for-profit applied research
Education, psychology and other branches of research that have practical applications, but are assessed by academic criteria are considered as pure research for the purposes of this discussion.


1.2 A personal example of a European "win-win" research failure

The PedSALi project highlights the current flaws in “win-win” collaborations between academia and industry.

The partners were Manchester University, Dow Chemicals and Bill Courtney trading as Cheshire Innovation. The aim was to develop a soft pedestrian friendly car bumper, to meet pending European requirements.

The industrial partners, Dow Chemicals and Cheshire Innovation got nothing out of this "win-win" project. It cost them time and money.

European pedestrians have faired even worse because there was no technical alternative to the PedSALi bumper and the EU pedestrian protection requirements were watered down.

Public funding for the university research was provided by the Engineering and Physical Science Research council (EPSRC). It was assessed for final payment of funding by academic standards and complaints from the commercial partners were ignored.
The EPSRC assessment was that the University research  “tended to internationally significant” and full payment was made.
The academic research leader was promoted.

He was also backed by the Dean of Engineering, the Head of Physics and the Head of Maths when he set his students technically absurd projects based on on his PedSALi "success."
[Courtney only became aware this problem when he received a complaint from an engineering student that he was being mis-taught.]

A subsequent application by Cardiff University to do the PedSALi research correctly was rejected by the EPSRC. - On the grounds that it was no longer innovative.

Years of frugal living by Courtney to pay for expensive international patents came to nothing. His patents aged and he ran out of patent funding following the unsuccessful Cardiff bid.

Since the patents expired, excellent research into SALi Technology has been done in China.


1.3 Applied Research Institutes
Our proposed research institutes would be set up on university campuses, be well equipped and accessible at cost for pure research work.

 Their distinguishing characteristics would be:

(i) The boards of governors for the Institutes would be sourced from industry and academics having a strong record of successful applied research.

(ii) University researchers receiving applied research funding would be assessed purely on their ability to achieve industrial goals.

(iii) Proposals for research projects could be made by either academics or industrialists.

(iv) The emphasis would be on the utility of the research outcomes. Academics would not be pressured into publishing papers.

(v) Any papers generated by a project would preferably be published in Applied Research Journals, where peer review was shared between academic and industrial researchers.

(vi) Peer review of terminal reports would also involve inputs from academic and industrial peers.

(vii) Good peer reviews of terminal reports would hold parity with journal publications for work assessment and career progression purposes.

(viii) The UK is blessed with 115 universities. If the bulk of these established Applied Research Institutes there would be scope for large competing technology based businesses to work with a specific university without undue fear of their competitors gaining easy access to their embryonic intellectual property.


(ix) PhD training would be provided, but with the primary emphasis being on meeting applied research standards. PhD courses would include teaming up with:
A law student to draft a (mock) patent application and learn about patent traps,
Teaming up with an MBA student to write a business plan and
With an art and design student to add human emotional appeal to their innovations.
[Some good news: Lord Willetts, until recently the UK minister with responsibility for universities and science did create a new type of four year PhD course that included some of the features we are arguing for.]
Entry to Applied PhD courses should open to those who have chosen the technical apprenticeship route to learning, in addition to those with a first degree.

(x) Candidates for applied research posts would not be penalized if they had a low academic publication record. Prolific publishers would only have (say) their three best innovative or applied research papers taken into account.

(xi) Girls cry in the laboratory according to one distinguished Nobel  Laureate. Excellent; we need a higher emotional content if we are to develop the applied aspects of science.

1.4 Applied Research Institutes or  Catapult Centres?
We need both.

Catapult Centres are starting to play a vital role in galvanising innovation in  areas of technology that the UK hopes to excel in. That is, they are industry focussed.

Applied Research Institutes are proposed for breaking down academic ignorance of applied research within universities. Hopefully, this will deliver a new generation of academics who are more innovation savvy. This in turn should lead to more innovation oriented graduates emerging from our universities.


Setting up Applied Research Institutes at a UK level would be good, but a multi-national system, tapping into the far larger number of universities within the EU would be even better.




2  Agile Academic fellowships

In order to accelerate science based innovation, we need to cultivate university environments where radical thinking is supported and radical researchers become student heroes.

(i) The current system of anonymous peer review of research proposals has the very opposite effect. It financially supports the status quo and drives away innovative thinkers.

(ii) Our larger universities who attract most of the funding are reluctant to upset the majority of conservative researchers by supporting radical thinkers when funding problems arrise.

[Bill Courtney knows this from costly personal experience.]

Here is a proposed solution:

2.1 The government should create a new Research Council and set aside research funding for the creation of fellowships for university personnel who want to carry out innovative research outside their own discipline. The greater the gap between the applicant's background discipline and the proposed foreground research, the stronger the chances of winning an award should be. There should be funding for pure and applied research fellowships.

2.2 Anonymous peer review of applications would be replaced by semi-anonymous expert panel review, with the names and expertise of panel members being public knowledge. Panel membership would be restricted to (say) three years. That is, applicants would have a clear idea about who might be assessing their proposal, but no idea of who did so.

2.3 Academics could apply for grants to do research within their own field, but it would need to be radically innovative to qualify. Crucially, experts from outside their own field would assess the proposals. This would prevent vested interests within the field blocking threats to their position.

2.4 Technicians
In Bill Courtney's experience of working with a number of universities, technicians are often far more agile thinkers than their academically qualified "superiors."

"Watchers often more than gamesters see." Sir Francis Bacon.

Lack of a PhD should not be a barrier to applied research funding applications.
This open competition will provide a healthy stimulus for the academics.

2.5 We need to publicise and celebrate agile thinking.
(i) Results of Agile Fellows research should be presented to the media at "two minute conferences" with the presentations also being available on YouTube or a dedicated website. The Fellows would be available for interviews after the presentations.
(ii) Running total and annual league tables would highlight the most agile thinking universities
"Gongs" should be generously awarded for economically important outcomes.

2.6 Existing final assessment procedures defend the status quo at the expense of innovators. (Click to see an example).
This new Research Council must be equipped with assessment procedures that are transparent, honest and do not allow fraudsters to masquerade as innovators.

2.7 Radical innovation is unlikely to convert into profitable commercial products in a single state funded step. A crowd funded investment bank could back the second stage of development before conventional investors are prepared to pick up the opportunity.

Setting up a UK level Agile Research Council would be good, but bearing in mind the rich diversity of European cultures and the considerable EU investment in research, a European approach would be more productive.



3  The National Innovation Competition

3.1 The nature of the competition

The competition organisers would call for innovative solutions to problems of current popular interest.
"How do we get our four national football teams to the World Cup finals, with one of the teams taking the trophy? "

"How do we reduce youth crime?"

"How do we reduce litter?"

NESTA, with its broad brief to promote national innovation is suggested as the competition organiser.


3.2 This annual competition would have three innovation related aims:

(i)     To make innovation a valid topic for popular discussion.

(ii)    To emphasise that innovation is an inclusive process, which all British citizens can contribute to.

(iii)   To re-kindle popular interest in parliamentary democracy. (See 3.4 below.)

The competition would be split into a number of classes, to tease out different clusters of innovative thinking. Classes could include:

  • Classes for school pupils of different age ranges.
  • Small teams & individuals
  • Senior citizens.
  • Pubs & clubs.
  • Works teams.

Summaries of all acceptable entries would be published on the NESTA web site.
Then, after a knock-out round judged by a NESTA panel, the finalists would work with one of the national television companies, making short documentaries to present their case on television.

The general public would vote for the finalists by phone and over the internet.


3.3 Funding the National Innovation Competition

Prizes would be contributed by sponsors, but to ensure that the competition received very broad newspaper coverage, sponsorship by newspapers would be discouraged.


3.4 Government commitment (UK and national assemblies)

Some competition entries may require legislative changes to deliver their solution. This should not be a handicap.

If required, parliamentary time should be made available for a private member's bill to make its way through parliament. This would give the rest of us, who are so quick to criticise politicians, a real chance to put our dinner table and pub bar chatter ideas to a parliamentary test.


4  Fair Taxpayer status for businesses

Governments can only provide financial support for innovation if people and companies pay their taxes.

The aim of this "app" is to make it financially worthwhile for companies to pay their fair share of the taxes, rather than avoid taxation by establishing their financial headquarters in low taxation havens.”

Companies that are open, honest and fair in their global payment of taxes should be rewarded with Fair Taxpayer status.

4.1  Fair Taxpayer’s would meet the following conditions.

·         They would pay (say) at least 30% taxes in total on their profits in any county were they do business, with a discount of up to 10% being allowed for research and development.
[In total = tax paid by senior executives etc.]

·         They would join a Fair Taxpayer's Club All other factors being equal, Fair Taxpayers would agree to deal preferentially with other companies having Fair Taxpayer status.

·         They would be open. Turnover and other financial information related to the public sector and other Fair Taxpayer companies would be published in a stand format online.
Clear "English" or an other language, as used by any one of the world's top ten stock exchanges would be used.


·         They would use a blockchain system to record their financial transactions. [http://wiht.link/blockchain-IG ] This would make it easy for taxing authorities to follow their transactions.


4.2  The benefits of gaining Fair Taxpayer status

·         Companies would be allowed to display a Fair Taxpayer logo on all of their communications and products.

·         All other factors being equal, governments and other public bodies would agree to deal preferentially with Fair Taxpayer companies.

·         They would gain a trading advantage when dealing with other Fair Taxpayer companies

·    Negotiating trade deals would be quicker and simpler if the aspiring parties offered similar fair trading schemes.


4.5  Assessment of Fair Taxpayer status – This needs to be kept as simple as possible.

Most companies will be rather coy about being too explicit about their financial details. But they do need to provide detailed accounts for the tax authorities. Companies operating in a number of countries could have their international accounts vetted by a single taxing authority in a country where they pay substantial taxes. This “lead authority” could have the power to award International Fair Taxpayer status. Other countries where the company paid tax would pay a small fee to the lead authority to cover costs.

One option for validating the quality of the assessment would be for a blockchain method to be used for verifying fund transfers in all territories. [http://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp]

 Q. Could corrupt governments exploit the Fair Taxpayer system?

A.  The lead authority would make allowances for the futility of paying high taxes in countries where abuse of public funds is verifiably rife. This would provide an incentive for corrupt regimes to reform in order to benefit from the 30%+ tax income.

The Republic of Ireland currently gains an unfair tax advantage over other EU countries by offering low corporation taxes. This injustice will be aggravated if the UK carries out its threat to become a low corporation tax haven after Brexit. A more ethical solution would be for the UK to remain in the EU and champion an EU wide fair taxpayer system.


4.6 Eventually the Fair Taxpayer status could be extended to include wealthy individuals.

This would encourage publicly spirited shareholders to elect demonstrably ethical members to company boards. People aspiring to knighthoods and other public awards would be highly motivated to acquire Fair Taxpayer status.

It would also achieve a similar taxation benefit for the UK to abolishing the "non-dom" status without the risk of driving wealthy foreigners away.

The Non-dom problem identified:


5   Big data, jobs and skills

The problem
Employers, education establishments, training providers and job seekers use different lines of communication, so mining data to improve the economy is difficult.

It is almost as bad as communicating in three different languages. 

Employers and job seeking individuals talk to each other
but the educators and training providers are not part of their conversation.

Employers, educators and training providers talk to each other
but the job seekers are not part of their conversation.

Job seeking individuals, educators and training providers talk to each other
but the employers are not part of their conversation.


This is how the key parties are currently linked up.


Figure 1. There is a wealth of data flowing around the edges of the triangle and most of it is electronic . But there is no "common language" for mining it.

 A solution
In order to maximise the efficiency which all three parties can mine this information it needs:

(i) To have a common format or "language."

(ii) To be collated in a central database.

 Figure 2, a jobs and skills database.

The transition to a central database system will need to be gradual. During the first phase, the triangular communication system will be maintained but the methods of recording information will be harmonised.
During the second period of (say) five years the database will be built up and dry tested before going public. Information about individuals and companies will be security protected.

Solving the migration headache

Instead of importing skilled labour from other EU countries, Britain should be training up its workforce at a city and regional level. A jobs & skills database would provide the workforce "intelligence" required to make informed training investments.

The database would be a useful tool for removing the postcode lottery that links the location of a child’s birth to its chances of fulfilling its potential later in life.

Robots and jobs

Britain needs to employ more robots to boost its productivity and cope with an aging population. But robots threaten human skills and make long term financial planning difficult. A jobs and skills database would reduce the threat of automation for workers by providing a clear route to incremental retraining as robots eat away at their existing skills.


A European solution would be better

Where possible, companies should recruit locally to minimise pressures on housing and public services.
But we should think European to maximise company productivity. An EU wide jobs & skills database would allow employers to recruit trained staff from a Europe wide pool if they wanted to expand rapidly

Click for further details


The jobs and skills database was originally a joint Bill Courtney & Graham Peake proposal.


6   Soft skills Certificates

Background: As Bill Courtney grows older he is delighted to note that young people are becoming politer and more considerate. This is a valuable national asset that needs to be cherished and acnowleged.


The problem
soft skills such as good timekeeping and regular work attendance are just as important as having an appropriately skilled workforce but our qualifications system does not recognise this.

Worse still, employees who "play the system" by contributing the bare minimum of soft skills required to hold down their jobs create resentment and lower the moral of their colleagues.

A solution
We need to publicly recognise the importance of soft skills.

(i) Good timekeeping and only taking time off from work when supported by a doctors note or other verifiable evidence should be acnowleged by employers awarding loyal employees a nationally recognised Soft Skills Certificate.

(ii) Employers should be encouraged to state the percentage of soft skills certificate holders on their staff in their annual reports, on their company websites and other communications.

A standard European Soft Skills Certificate would provide counties such as the UK who have a poor productivity record with a European benchmark that they can aspire to.



7   Making learning big data interpretation skills fun

The problem
The analysis of big data is becoming an increasingly important part of our working lives. But people who worry that their mathematical skills are lacking shy away from exploiting it.

A solution
We need to make big data crunching into a fun activity that can enjoyed as part of the school maths curriculum and as a hobby extension for adults as well. To do this we need to create a family of apps that will allow statistics about a topic of interest, for example pop music, golf or football to be converted into different types of charts and allow a range of novel questions to be asked.

The school curriculum would include designing and answering big data questions.


A first draft question might be, "What percentage of African national football tem players play in overseas leagues.?"

The refined question might be, "Considering the calendar year 2014, what percentage of male African national football tem players play in European football leagues?"