When the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee announced the launch of its My Science Inquiry – an open call for potential topics to explore as part of its role scrutinising government policy – ForrestBrown’s sector specialists were not short of suggestions.
In a wide-ranging discussion, our team of experts – whose industry experience spans sectors including engineering, manufacturing, software, and renewables – explored topics including energy security, smart buildings and quantum computing.
They also touched on wider policy questions about the most effective mechanisms for funding innovation and the role of the UK in global R&D programmes.
Smart energy, smart buildings – and a smart approach to R&D
Smart Energy and the potential of the Smart Grid
Tom kicked off discussion by introducing the subject of the smart grid and its implications for the energy market – a particularly relevant issue in the light of the current cost of living crisis.
TH: Smart grids can bring environmental and operational benefits but also come with big risks. There are potential vulnerabilities in a more automated energy network, not only from a security perspective but also the capacity for rapid growth to meet new demand from a growing electric vehicle fleet, amongst other things.
BW: Picking up the smart theme, smart buildings bring a similar mix of challenges and opportunities. Putting new technology at the heart of construction projects is great in principle but there are too many different standards. This can lead to gross inefficiencies. There is a question to be asked about whether this approach is working and if people are really seeing the benefits?
MH: None of the dots are joined up. The problem is worse the further down the food chain you go. Offices might be doing okay, but by the time you get to private houses the picture is much less positive.
DB: There’s a general point here about energy efficiency from generation to distribution and effective use in industry and home environments. This is obviously a hot topic if you’ll excuse the pun!
BW: That’s right. The proliferation of home energy generation and storage raises interesting questions too. We are talking about using cars as battery storage, but how do we link to the grid securely and efficiently?
The rise of smart buildings
GR: When it comes to construction sector, there is arguably an even bigger question about lifetime emissions from buildings and our attitude to reusing and repurposing them.
PB: A great example of this is reusing steel tubing from building construction by designing them to be taken out and used again in new builds. Reducing construction materials is a big area of focus.
GR: There are still plenty of building components that currently can’t be recycled and that needs to change. We also need to look beyond the prime contractor. Often it is in the supply chain where there are energy savings to be made. But the question of who pays remains a challenge. In a business with tight margins, developers need encouragement and incentives to choose the right option for the long-term.
BW: Pulling together two of our themes so far, smart buildings are vulnerable in the same way smart grids are open to exploitation by bad actors. The lack of a common standard designed for the purpose means there are loopholes in security which could make it easier to take control of an entire building management system.
MH: When you drill down to the domestic market, most homes are inefficient and vulnerable from a security perspective.
Quantum computing – the need for strategy
DB: Shifting gears, quantum computing is an area where we are seeing plenty of activity from clients. But have we got the right strategy as a nation to make sure we get this right? When we look back in 30 years’ time, what foundations will we wish we had in place?
Tree: The government is investing in R&D in this area, and we are seeing interesting developments in applications such as cryptography. Quantum key distribution, photonics, using satellites to move security keys around to avoid hacking by quantum algorithms – these are just a few examples of interesting work taking place in the quantum space.
DB: You mentioned government investment in quantum computing. This highlights a debate between ‘picking winners’ and taking a market-led approach to public funding of R&D. Recent developments such as the launch of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) suggest a more targeted approach. We would argue that R&D tax incentives can complement this by providing many more companies with access to funding, enabling more projects to proceed. The introduction of restrictions on tax reliefs for R&D activity taking place overseas is also concerning. While some narrow exemptions are proposed, workforce availability is not amongst them. This presents a real challenge for innovative technology companies who face global competition and could hamper the UK’s ability to be part of international R&D programmes.
TH: From a global perspective, supply chain issues have highlighted the dangers of over-reliance on importing goods – and the same is true of innovation. Semi-conductors and complex optical components, for example, are the modern equivalent of the steel industry. A paucity of skills and manufacturing capability in these areas has the same implications for defence in the 21st century as lack of steel to build tanks had in the 20th.
ForrestBrown – unmatched specialist expertise, on your terms
This dialogue only scratches the surface, but it demonstrates the range of topics open for scrutiny by the House of Common Science and Technology Committee, as well as the challenges, opportunities and potential areas of action open to innovators and government.
ForrestBrown was pleased to submit our proposal ‘Maintaining the UK’s competitiveness as a location for global R&D’ for evidence by the Committee alongside contributions from scientific and technological pioneers and researchers such as The Alan Turing Institute, University of Oxford and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical industry. We look forward to learning which winning proposal will form the basis of a new inquiry by the Committee.
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