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DTI poses perennial sci/tech problem

After ten years of Blair, the song remains the same

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As the UK's political class tots up Tony Blair's scorecard, there's one area where New Labour hasn't made much progress: Whitehall still feels compelled to organise summits to ask how we can all turn the UK into the world's greatest knowledge econonmy.

The earache has all stemmed from the Lisbon Agenda, which in 2000 held the EU to the goal of becoming the "most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010".

The Information Age Partnership, a DTI/industry forum published yesterday, outlined the UK's contribution to an offshoot of Lisbon called the i2010 initiative, which concerns itself solely with what ICT might do to make Europe great.

The report found - to its surprise, it said - that the success of both strategies, for Britain and Europe, hung on education.

In fact, unless more and better people went to work in the ICT sector, we were all stuffed, it said.

By way of solution, it proposed a bit of tinkering. School children ought to be encouraged to take an interest in ICT, and persuaded to continue it into further education.

The proposals drew on ideas already employed by campaigners trying to get more women into the male-dominated ICT industry - role models, for example, might persuade students that there was "excitement and opportunity" in ICT.

Employers had also been given a lead role in designing ICT curriculums. Nigel Payne, a manager at e-skills, the sector's human resource quango, said the ICT diploma, which is currently under construction, was being designed by employers.

The prominent role employers had been given in the i2010 Working Group and in the programming of young British minds was curious, to say the least.

It all gave the impression that the goal of i2010 was to maintain Britain's position as an adjunct to the US economy and its ICT sector as a adjunct to the US IT industry. Microsoft, a US multi-national, led the working group on how the British ICT sector ought to contribute to the lion's share of the economy. Cisco, another US multi-national, was the only other employer present on the publication of the i2010 findings.

Aside from US multi-national IBM, there are two British firms on the Working Group: ARM, the Cambridge chip designer, and BT, the former public utility. There is, however, a growing sense that an entrepreneurial, homegrown software industry might have broader horizons than one in service to a US multi-national.

Microsoft UK managing director Gordon Frazer told The Register how he spent yesterday morning lobbying MPs about the important contribution his firm makes to the UK economy.

He told MPs how 30,000 British firms were providing IT services to the rest of the economy using Microsoft software. Did they know that the Microsoft software on which they designed much of these services - Navision - had once been a Danish firm? Did investment in ICT inevitably lead to the resultant IP being sold to a US multi-national?

It is, said Dr Mike Rodd, director of the British Computer Society, a "complex issue". The UK "leads the world" in ICT research, he claimed, "but there's a pipeline problem - the research is drying up".

Companies like Microsoft and Intel were helping fund the research gap in British universities, which sounds a little like artificial insemination. But Rodd reckoned that the savvy firms were refusing to sell their IP to big fish like Microsoft and licensing it instead - no surrogates they.

But what of the i2010 initiative to make Britain and Europe great when the age of China dawns? A bit of tinkering might help. Perhaps perversely, the lack of education funding to achieve this end might play into the hands of the ICT industry.

Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking and Minister of State for Industry and the regions at the DTI, said students were taking vocational degrees so they had a chance of paying back their student debts.

Yet according to e-skills UK, only about three in 10 IT graduates took IT jobs. Which leads us back to the question: hhow we can all turn the UK into the world's greatest knowledge econonmy?®

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