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Where does the UK stand in the innovation medals table?

Posted on 05/11/2016

Exploring the 2016 Global Innovation Index

Where does the UK stand in the innovation medals table?

By Chris Warkup, CEO

Theresa May recently announced plans to harness the incredible success of Team GB at the Rio Olympic Games; citing its impressive 67 medals as proof that the formula of investment in identified talent could be mimicked by the business community as a means of improving our economic competitiveness.

But if that is our aim, it is worth considering where we stand today in the business medals table.

Some of the answers might come from the newly released 2016 Global Innovation Index (GII). The figure below illustrates the index and some components of the index for Switzerland, Sweden, the UK and USA – the top four countries on the overall GII.


[1]The Index is made up of 82 different measures of innovation for 130 countries. These measures are clustered and summarised into sub-pillars, pillars and sub-indices. The figure shows the Overall Index, the two main Input and Output sub-indices and a selection of Sub-pillars – each made up of a small number of measures.

The UK’s academic community is enormously strong – we are top of the list for quality of universities and first for one measure of citations of published papers. It’s a great platform on which to build a more prosperous knowledge-based economy – but what does the index say about how well we are doing with that challenge?

Overall, the UK sits 3rd among 130 countries in the GII, and yet the finer detail shows that third position is no reason to be complacent. There are areas in the index where we are certainly underperforming. Our scientific brilliance isn’t resulting in the widespread production of innovative marketable goods. We have mediocre rankings on the GII in both Intellectual Property Receipts and PCT Patents Filed, and sit at 23rd on the index for High-Tech Exports.

Despite a positive innovation climate for business in the UK – we are 7th on Business Environment and 8th on Regulatory Environment – scores that will take account of positive UK measures such as R&D tax credits and Patent Box – our positioning in indicators such as gross expenditure on research and development demonstrates our limitations when it comes to investment in converting knowledge into business (we are 20th on R&D performed by business and 25th on R&D funded by business, compared to the United States in 10th and 9th place and Sweden in 5th and 8th respectively. Israel and Japan come top of these two indicators.)
Given the low level of spend on R&D in and by business, it will not be a surprise to see that we rank a poor 33rd on Research Talent in Business Enterprise. (Israel, the Republic of Korea and Japan are the top three, with the USA 5th.)

The picture gets even worse when the breakdown of what the GII calls Knowledge Impact is examined. Although for those of us who work in the knowledge transfer arena, there is little unexpected in the overall picture the index paints, it is surprising and worrying that we rank 72nd on Growth Rate of GDP Per Person Engaged.
The Global Innovation Index sums up many indicators to rank countries on Innovation Inputs and Innovation Outputs, and then calculates an Innovation Efficiency Ratio – the UK ranks 14th on that ratio. The next time you hear someone say how good we are at innovation because we rank 3rd in the GII, remind them we are only 14th on what we capture from what we create.

Whilst it is, of course, easy to pick fault with what is in the index and how the indicators are measured, these results represent a timely reminder of the work we have to do to position ourselves as a genuinely world-beating producer of desirable goods and services. This is not an insurmountable task.
With Brexit on the horizon, it is more important than ever to drive tangible progress in science into tangible returns for taxpayers; which can only happen if we successfully capture more value from our tremendous scientific endeavour and creativity.

So what needs to change? Well, for a start, to be up there with our major competitors, we need to see greater investment from both the public and private sectors in business-related research – not just for large corporations, but also for SMEs. In the debate about post-Brexit rates of corporation tax, perhaps there is also an argument for a fresh look at capital allowances – can we incentivise more business investment into technologies that improve productivity?

To torture the Olympic medals table metaphor a little longer, our science is our cycling team – we need to maintain investment to keep up our excellent performance, but we can’t really win many more medals, no matter how much we spend. Our Innovation Infrastructure and Market Sophistication, meanwhile, are a little like rowing and sailing – doing pretty well, really.
If we want to move up the table in a way that will deliver prosperity for the UK from our brilliant science and creativity, where should we look to invest more?

What we need is to find our innovation equivalents of swimming and gymnastics – areas where we just know we can do better with investment. To me, these priority opportunities are translational research and investment in industrial innovation; in delivering world-beating products and services from science, technology and our innate creativity, but also innovation in our manufacturing and business processes that will lift our productivity.

Only by capitalising on our capabilities will we be able to address our weaknesses enough to reach the top of the leader board.


With thanks to my colleagues Lyuba Stoyanova and Katharine Rooney for their significant help in preparing this blog.

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