Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 11 November 2023

 We have selected this article because it complements our piece on intellectual and manual labour dedicated to Alfred Sohn-Rethel and the larger essay on "Descartes's World", both of which are available online.

Britain is a nation of thinkers, with not enough doers

Tej Parikh · Nov 11, 2023

Britain has an illustrious list of inventors. Isaac Newton devised the first reflecting telescope, Michael Faraday the electric motor, and Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing developed the first computers. All these pioneers hailed from academia, as researchers, scientists and professors. But crucially, they also put theory into action, and taught others to do so too. It is this ability to both think and do — individually and collectively — that still powers growth and innovation across the world.

Research by economic historians Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr argued that Britain’s Industrial Revolution was underpinned by three groups of people. The inventors, the tweakers — who could adapt, improve and debug existing technology — and the implementers, capable of “building, installing, operating, and maintaining new and complex equipment”.

Newton and Faraday had the skills to develop ideas and apply them. But Britain today lacks doers. The OECD’s Skills Needs Indicators show the UK has skills shortages in sectors including construction, engineering and medicine. Instead, “it has a speciality in sounding-clever industries, such as research, finance, journalism and television”, said Dan Wang, a technology expert and visiting scholar at Yale Law School.

The thinker-doer split is blurry, but it is nonetheless visible in Britain. Take its universities. Research produced in the UK ranks first globally for citable documents, but its institutions fall behind on development. The country ranks 34th for research talent in business, which suggests that its scientific skills are more concentrated in academia.

“Our universities focus on world leading science, with too little effort to adapt existing technologies to local economies,” as Neil Lee, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, told me. “So we end up with a lot of the blue sky research, but less application than we need.”

It is a similar story for business. The UK’s start-up ecosystem ranks second globally. But young enterprises with clever ideas then struggle to scale up. Indeed, British SMEs lag behind international peers in adopting technology and management skills.

Then take policymaking. Britain has world-class universities, and the fourthmost think-tanks globally, yet the political world struggles to turn ideas into reality. Building things and managing change is not a forte of the public sector. With a shortage of 4mn homes, the UK is failing to build either housing or infrastructure at low cost or on time. The palaver over the HS2 rail scheme is a case in point.

Britain’s skills mix is a byproduct of its particular story of industrial transformation. Deindustrialisation has been more rapid than in other developed nations, and the UK has shifted more of its economic weight towards the service and knowledge sectors.

Of course, service sector jobs involve “doing” too. Those “sounding-clever industries” — including research, professional services and creative jobs — make intangible assets, which are harder to measure. Britain’s growing advanced engineering sector is also a good example of connecting thinking and doing, working with manufacturers to improve processes.

And Britain’s specialisation in exporting higher-value-added services means it can simply import physical goods. Skills needs can be plugged through immigration, politics allowing.

But the ability to do — through tweaking and implementing ideas — needs to be better embedded in the economy, for three reasons. First, as British science, business and public sector institutions demonstrate, the country needs to adopt research and technology better. Otherwise, the UK is mostly a factory for ideas applied elsewhere.

Second, homes, railways, and infrastructure always need to be built, upgraded and retrofitted. Better transport and communications could generate gains from knowledge-based workers too, by enabling them to spread across the country. “Technology is more than tools, like pots and pans, and instructions, like recipes,” said Wang. He talks about industrial experience and “all the things that come with learning by doing”.

Third, there is scepticism over how much Britain’s dominant service sector can drive productivity gains. It has plenty of zero-sum activities — including in compliance, trading and legal disputes — where efforts cancel each other out.

The upshot is that Britain needs to bring more applied learning into education, invest more in apprenticeships and management training and support the growth of clusters, where research and development can connect. “We need to build the prestige of applied research skills and institutions,” said Lee, who points out that the world’s best institutions — MIT in Boston or ETH in Zurich — mix both. To raise its productivity, Britain will need both heads and hands.

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