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Last modified: 23 December 2014

Summing it up.

I saw the following tweet by the Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust today. It came to me via the Director of Policy & Research at Nesta.

I share Mark and Stian's depression at the Tory party's drift towards isolationism. The three of us have dedicated much of our lives to science and innovation in the UK. We all believe that the UK's past and future successes rely on us being open to the world.

So how can we reverse this worrying national trend towards being ever less welcoming to foreign talent and ideas?

I can't do much. But I think that Mark and Stian can. They are in a position to help fix this, because they are part of the problem. It was a problem that Mr. Ganesh himself highlighted just sixteen months ago.

Janan Ganesh again

In August 2013, Mr. Ganesh pronounced that the UK should accept it is London-centred. London's success, he wrote, is not the result of favourable treatment within the UK. Consequently the rest of the UK should be grateful, not resentful of its capital's success.

The piece is a fantasy. It flies in the face of overwhelming evidence, as Ed Cox touched upon in his New Statesman response. I have written at length on this subject too. That the author does not dare step outside of Central London to defend his claim is telling.

But the fantasy does not stop there. Evan Davies, a Londoner, was given nearly two hours on BBC1 to promote a similar view in his geographically illiterate series "Mind the Gap". The North was predictably given no right to reply by its own national broadcaster. This despite Evan's suggestion that Wigan, half way between Liverpool and Manchester, was too isolated to recover being almost as ludicrous as The Economist's implication that Wolverhampton and Burnley are in the middle of nowhere.

Part of the problem

A large driver of the UK's increasing rejection of diversity comes from a knowledge that although the Capital may benefit, most areas will not. We certainly haven't so far. Worse still, London itself seems to have completely given up listening or responding to those concerns. The Economist, The FT, and the Guardian are private companies — I cannot ask them to be balanced. But the BBC is paid for by me and yet it catastrophically fails to give voice to any part of the nation outside the M25.

It's not just the media either; the Wellcome Trust and Nesta are prime actors in the continuing centralisation of the UK state. The Wellcome Trust's lobbying to move the UK's synchrotron light source from Manchester to Oxford is infamous. Most researchers I worked with in the North of England consider its funding decisions biased in favour of the South-East. The fact of where it allocates money supports that view.

I can't even find nesta's regional breakdown of spending, but if it's anything like as bad as innovate_uk's it's similarly depressing.

So what can be done?

The key to promoting an open and welcoming nation can be seen in Scotland. It is the only part of the UK that enjoys the funding preference usually reserved for London and the South East by the Wellcome Trust. It is the only part of the UK with its own Nesta office. It is no coincidence that it is also unusually open and welcoming to foreign students, graduates, and talented workers.

So here are my three challenges to the Wellcome Trust and Nesta.

  1. Get out of London. The Wellcome Trust and Nesta already have an office in Dundee. You should open one in Manchester, Liverpool, or Leeds and make it your national headquarters. Be truly innovative and hold your events there and beam them back to the South.
  2. Talk with the country. If you believe that you allocate funding fairly, let us question you. I have tried to discuss this on twitter and in person — I am always fobbed off with PR-department nonsense.
  3. Explain your predicament. If you need to be in London to influence policy then advocate devolution in every public statement you make. If you need to be in London to attract the best talent then offer every job in the North first and then publish results showing that candidates were too poor. If you really need to be in London, then take the time to tell us. I think you'll surprised by how okay we are with it.

These are three really tough asks. I know that. But they are possible, they will make a difference, and you are in a position to make them happen. I am very happy to help. I want us to succeed.

If you have any questions then I'm happy to talk at any time. Just not in London.

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