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      The Crucible of Knowledge in Context

      It’s not always easy to show all parts of our societies how science can have monumental societal advantages.

      17 Feb 2022 Harriet Fear MBE, Director, Cambridge&

      Investing in the ‘lightbulb’ moments that trigger world-changing innovation is not a selfish enterprise. I’m always deeply struck by the fact that innovative ecosystems aren’t evolving ideas and commercialising creativity because it satisfies a select group of people. Or because there’s a profit that stands alone from the social purpose of the scientific endeavour. Time and time again I see that the pride comes from the knowledge that the spoils of focused research have the potential to benefit present and future generations globally, in ways that perhaps we can never begin to expect. 

      It’s not always easy to show all parts of our societies how science can have monumental societal advantages. Perceptions abound about what goes on behind laboratory doors and in the shiny buildings that are springing up throughout clusters.

      NASA, the International Space Station (ISS) programme, and the UK Space Agency domestically, have all seemingly faced an uphill struggle when justifying large-scale public expenditure on space exploration which doesn’t immediately impact human activity on Earth. Doing some research, it’s clear that the aspiration to understand our cosmos has resulted in over 3,000 ‘spinoff’ inventions contributing magnitudes more than their budgets to GDP and general humankind. Such as satellite communications, solar panels, implantable heart monitors; cancer therapies, advances in weather forecasting, air travel, search-and-rescue, water purification, computing, and aerodynamics; wireless networks, fuel cell storage, drones, augmented reality, and prosthetics.  

      I wonder sometimes if our ecosystems, and the UK as a whole have a tendency to downplay how brilliant we are at having and developing original insights. This could have the effect of leading to an undermining of progressive and potentially world-changing ideas that test the societal parameters we’ve set ourselves.

      We should be bolder in our ‘promotion’ and I know many in our ecosystems are working hard on that. I’ve lost count of the number of times US investors have said to me ‘Goodness, I didn’t know THAT’ about the UK, and questioned why we aren’t shouting from the rooftops about our scientific excellence.

      We don’t have to look too far of course to be supremely proud as a ‘region’ of recent advances.

      As a product of ingenuity and perseverance involving all aspects of the OxCam Arc, the AstraZeneca vaccine and its contribution to the safety of millions of people worldwide has social advantages that are both obvious and unassailable. In the face of an indiscriminate pandemic, hundreds of other innovators worked tirelessly behind the scenes in laboratories within the Arc, contributing as suppliers of ‘blank’ proteins and antibodies necessary for experimentation, as PPE suppliers, test creators, as diagnostics providers and more.  

      This is one world-changing innovation among many being incubated and evolving within the Arc. Its fundamental importance to life and our collective social prosperity is a wakeup call to what’s possible if the region’s innovation ecosystem is fully supported. In my experience we are always pushing boundaries and will never be comfortable or satisfied with the familiarity of the path well-worn.

      This is the tip of a tremendous iceberg of scientific and technological progress that could be made even more possible if we look to double down on what the Arc does well. And alleviate barriers encountered by innovators, investors, academic institutions, and the providers of that space, to enable the ecosystem to flourish. 

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