Politicians of all stripes claim to support science and want to make their country or region the best place for innovation. This is then backed up by grants, loans, and other funding schemes to support local research and innovation.
Many of these schemes are preceded by consultation exercises to determine what is required (and what will be popular with voters). The outputs from these are fairly predictable; ask a university researcher what they need and they will ask for new research programmes and facilities, ask an industrialist and they will ask for investment to support scale-up.
Politicians and civil servants are then left with the challenge of deciding which areas to support; what is the optimum allocation of limited funds between areas as different as quantum computing, decarbonisation, and biotechnology? The resulting funding ecosystem is complex and subject to frequent changes and reorganisations in response to changes in government policy.
I would argue that we and our politicians could and should focus on a more fundamental question – how can we ask better questions and make better decisions?
Asking questions is a key part of learning and learning is something that we should all be doing throughout our lives; not just in our early years.
This requires a focus on education and life-skills; empowering people to challenge ideas, engage in constructive criticism, and seek improvement in every situation.
The UK is rightly concerned about its lack of productivity growth over the last decade; we have even established a research institute to understand its causes. This issue will not be fixed by a series of single investments into the latest area of science or technology, but by a societal shift in attitudes to learning and the encouragement of innovation in all its forms.
As innovators, we need to upskill ourselves and our educators. Our most passionate educators tend to go into schools or to our best universities (when have you ever heard a bright ambitious undergraduate talk about a career aim of teaching at a technical college or delivering management training?). The reality is that we need to improve education across the board – and recognise that it is the technical skills and soft-skills training that will help us become more innovative and ultimately enable us to make better choices, both politically and scientifically.
Telegraph Materials helps growing companies with innovative materials-science based technologies to ask better questions, so that they can better understand the fit between their product and the market areas that they are approaching.
 Richard Jones has produced an excellent set of articles on the current UK research funding landscape at http://www.softmachines.org/