The UK government – and the UK bioeconomy – are facing uncertain economic times. Events both close to home and elsewhere make this a trying time for business and government alike, yet plough on they must. To this end, the UK government has published a “green paper” reviewing the country’s industrial strategy. The report covers a wide range of areas, setting out ten “pillars” upon which to build the country’s industrial strategy.
These range from the development of skills through education reforms and technical qualifications, to supporting business growth through knowledge transfer, supporting upscaling and encouraging sectors to work together. But what does this strategy mean for the UK’s bioeconomy? In truth, that is unclear, as bioeconomy sectors are all but absent from the report, but much can be inferred from its contents that paints future opportunities for the bioeconomy.
Research & Innovation
The centrepiece of the paper is a commitment to Research & Development in the UK, celebrating the country’s position at the forefront of global scientific research. It laments the UK’s past failures to successfully commercialise its developments, but promises to change that. The government has pledged £4.7bn in science funding over the next three to four years, but perhaps more importantly, they have announced a separate funding outlet in the form of the “Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund”. This fund will allow the government to directly invest in sectors and projects where it believes the UK has potential to drive global development.
One such sector the paper specifically mentions is “biotechnology”, which is great news for the UK bioeconomy, particularly in the bio-based chemicals and biopharmaceuticals sectors. Elsewhere, another of the pillars focuses on “Cultivating World-Leading Sectors”, one of which is highlights as being “Life Sciences”. Nothing is discussed by way of what that means, but even advances in the broad area of life sciences could have positive knock-on effects for the bioeconomy: for example, improvements to genetic engineering could improve microbe-based processes such as anaerobic digestion and algal biofuels.
Small Business Growth
Other signs are there that can be encouraging for bio-based companies, particularly SMEs, with £400m pledged to form a “Business Investment Bank” with the aim of assisting SMEs with scaling up. Though this may well prove to be but a thin cushion, particularly in the bioenergy sector where scaling up requires massive monetary investment due to the level of infrastructure involved. Infrastructure itself is set for an overhaul, which covers the energy sector, but only in definition – no actual proposals are made regarding energy infrastructure.
Another promising sign for the bioeconomy is the paper’s pillar dedicated to “Improving Procurement”. This presents a great opportunity for UK bioeconomy companies to get involved in the wholesale infrastructure developments proposed in the paper. Here there is opportunity, particularly for SMEs, to establish themselves in the public sector, something that has been a rarity thus far in the bioeconomy. However, this prophesised emergence into the public sector relies on a sympathetic administration, and if this paper is anything to go by, this government hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with its support for the bioeconomy.
That, of course, may change with the right opportunities and/or developments, but the lack of any direct addressing of the bioeconomy doesn’t exactly inspire expectation. The government could look to adopt a model similar to the US’s BioPreferred scheme to mandate bio-based product use in the public sector where available, and to encourage consumers to switch to bio-based products. The EU has been more cautious with its appraoch, with the OpenBio and InnProBio projects looking for gaps in the market for biobased products, and encouraging people working in procurement to favour biobased industry, respectively. This is to ensure that the bioeconomy, if installed in the EU, is not done so heavy-handedly. What effect either of the EU’s projects will have is confined to the future, but doing something similar would provide reassurance that the government is committed to the bioeconomy, and as a result would stimulate growth in the sector.
However, all is not lost regarding getting the government on board with the bioeconomy: also among the pillars of industrial strategy is a commitment to “clean growth”, which translates to decarbonisation of UK industry. This proposal does not intrinsically mean growth of the bioeconomy, as the government’s banner is firmly planted in the camp of offshore wind farms and nuclear power where energy is concerned, and of electric and hydrogen powered cars as opposed to biofuels. This could, however, spell an opportunity in the biobased polymers and chemicals sectors, which becoming increasingly linked with the automotive industry. Aside from this, the government do, promise to publish an “Emissions Reduction Plan” later this year, which will hopefully go into more detail of where the bioeconomy slots in with their plan. Their focus is also clearly on cost over cleanliness, looking to “reduce the cost of achieving our decarbonisation goals”. This implies that the bioeconomy will have to bring its costs down before the government will consider getting involved.
All things considered, the overwhelming message is an encouragingly delivered “wait and see”, which is probably to be expected given the present state of political and economic uncertainty. The take-home message for the bioeconomy is that if it can catch Whitehall’s eye as a hub for innovation and development, then a greater enshrinement into policy can be expected, but until then it is business as usual. This paper is only a consultation, and so nothing it lays down is set in stone, meaning there is always opportunity for the bioeconomy to yet play a big role in the government’s strategy.