The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced that Warwick Manufacturing Group (University of Warwick) has been awarded £100m in Government funding for WMG’s work in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
It forms part of a £780 million announcement of which £270.9 million has been awarded to the West Midlands (to WMG and The Manufacturing Technology Centre, below) for their work in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and the Energy Systems Catapult in Birmingham.
The WMG centre’s HVM Catapult focuses on Low Emission Mobility, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV) and the supply chain. This is directly aligned to the Government’s ‘Road to Zero’ vision for the transport sector of zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion, underpinned by WMG’s digital manufacturing capability that drives improvement in productivity and competitiveness across sectors.
The Warwick press release reports that in their first five years the catapults have supported around 3,000 small businesses to develop and exploit new technologies. They operate more than £850m world-class facilities and are also training hundreds of apprentices and doctoral students. Last year 900 apprentices gained valuable practical experience with cutting-edge technologies used in modern manufacturing at HVM Catapult.
A more cautious account was given last November in The Register, by Andrew Orlowski. Citing a report by Ernst and Young’s Catapult Review Steering Group to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he summarised some of its conclusions.
The catapult agencies (aka the government’s elite network of Catapult Centres), which are formally private sector “independent research and technology organisations”, hoover up public money via Innovate UK.
The UK government’s network of “Catapult” innovation and technology agencies fall under its R&D spending umbrella – show dubious value for money. Governance structures are unhelpful the report finds. Innovate UK – the operating name of the government’s Technology Strategy Board, is an arms’-length body that falls under the Department for Business. Innovate can’t sit on Catapult boards or recommend appointments because “There are private and public sector clashes e.g. when Catapults are asked to deliver for Government, report on performance, and comply with government accounting rules”.
Orlowski adds that the report suggests the manufacturing and biotech catapults have had a positive economic impact. But the others? Not so much. three of the seven catapults have been put in the Last Chance Saloon: the “Transport Systems”, “Future Cities” and “Digital”.
EY adds: “With the Catapult network’s overall lack of a clearly articulated set of objectives, or a framework for measuring impact, and the current level of operational performance, it is unlikely that the impact of the network overall has been significant so far. . . “
“The “Transport Systems”, “Future Cities” and “Digital” Catapults urgently need to draw up new plans to justify their existence: funding should be halted if they can’t “prove confidence” with a clear new plan”.
Dr Ian Campbell, Interim Executive Chair of Innovate UK, has a more positive view:
“In their first five years the catapults have supported around 3,000 small businesses to develop and exploit new technologies. They operate more than £850m world-class facilities and are also training hundreds of apprentices and doctoral students, such as at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult where in the last year 900 apprentices have gained invaluable practical experience with cutting-edge technologies used in modern manufacturing.”