Sustainability research funding – Is this just a case of Government lip-service?

strategyThe latest spin from the Technology Strategy Board reveals that a paltry £7M is going to be spread thinly across 17 projects – shared by 70 institutions, with a direct benefit to a clutch of very well known global companies – among them GSK, ICI, P&G and Unilever – all firms that ought to be able to fund their own sustainability process improvements – which should, by definition, be self-funding anyway.

Commercial organisations are often accused of paying lip-service to concepts such as quality and sustainability. Sometimes, though, it is the policy makers who seem to be having a laugh at our expense.

The following press release landed in my inbox the other day. There’s so much to cry about in it that I don’t really know where to start.

Clearly this is blatant PR from the Technology Strategy Board (a Government-funded quango) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (the Government-funded body responsible for taking decisions on the funding of research in UK academia). Quite why they feel they should spend taxpayers money on self-promotion I don’t know.

We are told that 70 institutions will share a £7M government fund to research sustainable manufacturing. That is only £100,000 each – barely enough to pay for one or two salaries for the year.

Apparently, however, the same £7M is going to be split across 17 MAJOR R&D projects. That is a little over £400k per project. If you take out the equivalent of the salaries of just 17 lead scientists (say £50k), each with one assistant (say £20k), and their employment costs (assuming only 50% extra) the investment in the research beyond pure brain power amounts to a little under £300k per project. The PR conveniently doesn’t explain how the 4 and a bit institutions are going to collaborate – nor how much will be spent on facilitating this (the role of the Technology Strategy Board apparently).

Elsewhere the Technology Strategy Board tell us that the SME sector is vital to innovation, then they patronisingly announce that their role is to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from academic institutions to those SMEs. Perish the thought that the SMEs might have a few ideas of their own! Worse still, this £7M is not going to be used by the much vaulted (but underfunded) SMEs – it is being shared among such institutions as GlaxoSmithKline, Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd [known to most of us as ICI] (an AkzoNobel company), Johnson Matthey, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever. Not only are these not SMEs, nor are they particularly British, but they are also perfectly capable of investing in their own research – especially for sustainable solutions which by definition are self-funding!

Perhaps, though, the title of the PR is the item that deserves most irony: “Innovation will make UK process industry more sustainable” What a conclusion. Quite extraordinary. I’d never have guessed. Mind you – if innovation made the UK process industry less sustainable it would certainly keep the spin doctors in business for a while longer.

Innovation will make UK process industry more sustainable

20 September 2012

Seventy UK companies, universities and research organisations are to share over £7 million of government funding to undertake research that could lead to the development and commercialisation of innovative approaches to sustainable manufacturing for the process industry.

The Technology Strategy Board ( and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ( will invest the funding in 17 major research and development projects that will develop innovative process technologies to improve sustainability in a wide range of sectors, including food and drink, chemicals, construction and aerospace. The total value of the R&D, including contributions from the participating companies, will be in excess of £14 million.

Iain Gray, Chief Executive of the Technology Strategy Board, said: “Innovation in sustainability is vital for the continued success and growth of the UK process industry and this research and development will lead to innovations in manufacturing that will improve economic performance, benefit the environment and have a positive social impact.

Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), said: “Supporting sustainable processes in manufacturing is how we can grow, both in our knowledge and economically. These projects and businesses developing sustainable processes will, in turn, deliver new opportunities for further research as well as the financial and environmental returns. Our partnership with the Technology Strategy Board is about ensuring that sustainable development is engrained from laboratory to shop floor.”

The seventeen collaborative R&D projects will be led by C-Tech Innovation Ltd, Centre for Process Innovation Ltd, Dynamic Extractions Ltd, Environmental Pulp Products Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline, Imerys (UK) Ltd, Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (an AkzoNobel company), Industrial Microwave Systems Ltd, Johnson Matthey Ltd, Perceptive Engineering Ltd, PhosphonicS Ltd, Plant Integrity Ltd, Procter & Gamble Technical Centres Ltd, Scionix Ltd, Syrris Ltd, Unilever and Yorkshire Process Technology Ltd.

The research and development projects include:

* The development, by C-Tech Innovation and their partners, of an innovative low-energy baking system based on a two-step process consisting of an accelerated conventional baking stage followed by a novel post-baking cooling step. This reduction in baking time could reduce the overall energy consumption of the sector by 20%;

* A collaborative project led by Imperial Chemical Industries involving the development of several novel approaches to reducing, and preferably eliminating, solvents in paints. The partnership (between ICI Paints, High Force Research, Durham University and the University of Manchester) aims to develop new solutions and products, and commercialise the results;

* Scionix, working with the University of Leicester and Rolls-Royce, who will research and develop a novel process for electropolishing aerospace castings using ionic liquids. Conventional electropolishing requires a cocktail of strong, toxic, inorganic acids. Ionic liquids are much easier to work with, less toxic, contain no strong acids and operate at much higher energy efficiency;

* A collaborative project led by Industrial Microwave Systems that will develop a highly cost-effective, continuous, conveyor-based, solid-state microwave-based system for the production of low-carbon concretes incorporating higher levels of waste products, with lower energy use. This will enable concrete manufacturers to increase the quantities of low carbon cement they use.

Sustainable manufacturing is of critical importance across the process industries, including the bulk & fine chemical, pharmaceutical & biotech, agrochemical, coatings & lubricants, home & personal care, food & drink, mining, water, construction materials, oil and fuel industries. In all these sectors, there is a drive for faster, more effective product design and manufacture in order for the UK to become more globally competitive.

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