Prime minister David Cameron appears to be throwing money at the UK technology sector with one hand and reeling it back in with the other.
Last week, he pledged to back the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution with £45 million. The day before, Techworld revealed that the £50 million allocated for the regeneration of Silicon Roundabout at the end of 2012 is being held by the Treasury (until Boris Johnson can convince the PM that City Hall's redevelopment plans are up to scratch).
Labour MP, Chi Onwurah, told Techworld that she finds it "striking" that the government can make £50 million investments here and there for "pet" projects like graphene and the diamond synchrotron, even when it cuts the science budget.
It appears that the government is doubling up its efforts on the number of cheerleading tech announcments it makes as it as cottons on to the fact that technology is being perceived as an increasingly “cool” sector.
Every day, press releases land in my inbox, and those of my colleagues, highlighting all the wonderful ways in which various Whitehall departments are spending taxpayer’s money.
Let’s take a look at last week. On Monday, Nick Clegg’s office was quick to hail Brighton’s apparent tech cluster as “Silicon Beach” and announce that the city was going to benefit greatly from a £170 million investment, even though only £6.7 million of that is coming from the central government that Clegg works for. The next day, science minister David Willetts announced the UK science sector was going to get a £300 million boost for three projects related to telescopes and microscopes, boldly claiming that the investment will create £150 million for the UK economy every year. To top off a busy week of spending, Vince Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said last Thursday that it is backing nine innovative businesses with a total of £660,000.
The latest string of government announcements have raised concerns that the prime minister could be rotating public money around various tech programmes and initiatives, grabbing the glory and the headlines, but ultimately failing to deliver anything of merit.
"David Cameron likes to make announcements and position himself at the front of the technology revolution but there isn’t any follow-up," said Onwurah, who was previously the shadow minister for innovation. "With Tech City, he took what was already there, gave it a brand, said he would give it some money, and then moved on to invest it in the Internet of Things."
"There’s an ad-hoc approach to [investing in] key industries, which need long-term strategies," she added, claiming David Cameron is simply a salesman who doesn't get tech.
A government spokesperson responded to Onwurah's comments by saying: "Investing in science and technology is a crucial part of this government’s long-term economic plan. This Government has protected the £4.6 billion science ring-fenced budget and we have sustained capital investment in science guaranteed at £1.1 billion a year, year-after-year to 2020.”
Undoubtedly some public money will be well spent on the right technology and have a real impact on the UK economy. But other times, it won’t be. And when it’s not, journalists need to be there to highlight and expose it.