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Britain tries to get more for its R&D money in the marketplace

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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is backing an initiative to free bureaucratic constraints to let loose a new breed of British entrepreneur. Government ministers from Mrs. Thatcher down are trying to encourage small companies to grow in areas of science and technology - sectors in which Britain has long had expertise but has generally lacked commercial muscle.

For a long time, observers of Britain's industrial scene have been worried that the country fails to obtain good commercial results from the money it plows into research and development.

At the last count, this stood at some (STR)7 billion ($10.5 billion) per year , or just over 2 percent of Britain's gross domestic product. Of the total R&D figure, the government contributes about half.

At a meeting of some of Britain's top-ranking scientists and industrialists last month, Mrs. Thatcher proposed two measures to help ideas evolving from research laboratories move into the marketplace.

University researchers wanting to sell inventions will no longer have to offer their ideas first to the British Technology Group, a state organization. This had been seen as a safeguard against individuals cashing in on research paid for by public funds. But the government thinks the mechanism can delay efforts to get new inventions into the marketplace.

Finance and venture-capital firms are to be allowed into laboratories run by the Ministry of Defense. The ministry spends some (STR)2 billion ($3.5 billion) a year on R&D for weapons systems and other military equipment.

Because of security procedures, companies rarely get to hear about what the military researchers are up to. As a result many ideas that could have commercial value never see the light of day.

As a start, a group of financial institutions has looked at work taking place at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern, Worcester, one of the ministry's top R&D laboratories.

If they see anything they think is commercially useful, the institutions may arrange for other companies to take out licenses on the technology.

The Department of Trade and Industry is also helping small firms move into advanced areas of science and technology. It is spending some (STR)200 million on grants to encourage firms to make new hardware or use it in their production processes.

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