UK science risks falling behind

C&I Issue 6, 2010

UK science is at risk of spending years in the doldrums and may never recover if funding is slashed by the next government as it attempts to grapple with the £178bn budget deficit. Cuts to science after the general election could slow the UK’s recovery from recession, a report produced by the Royal Society claims. ‘UK science is a jewel in the nation’s crown,’ says Martin Taylor, a fellow of the Royal Society and chair of the report’s advisory group. ‘We must retain our position and use this strength to fuel our economic recovery and growth.’

The report, The scientific century: securing our future prosperity, claims that reducing the country’s science budget at a time when competing economies are increasing theirs could result in the UK losing its leading position. France has recently announced a €35bn investment in its ‘knowledge economy’ and Germany has committed to increasing its education and research budget by €12bn over the next three years. The US has also benefitted from a $21bn boost as part of the stimulus package and China’s investment in science continues to grow apace, albeit at a reduced rate after seeing growth of 20% in science spending over the last decade.

Taylor points out that while the UK is currently the most scientifically productive country in the world, it risks ‘relegation from the premier league’ unless it invests heavily in research. The government has already cut £600m from universities and further cuts are feared after the general election, which is widely expected to be held on 6 May.

Former science minister William Waldegrave, who is also part of the report’s advisory group, said: ‘There are two things that, however hard the times, the chief treasurer should try to protect – the security services and science.’ He added that stability and long term planning is vital for science as cutting funding now can strangle scientific research for decades. ‘Investment in science cannot be turned on and off on a political whim – we must have long term investment,’ he added.

The report also claims to ‘bust the familiar myth’ that the UK is good at basic research, but bad at turning this into innovation and commercial success. Universities have become ‘fledgling powerhouses’, according to the report, with patent applications up 136% over the last eight years and 14,000 people employed by spin outs with a combined turnover of more than £1.1bn. David Sainsbury, former government science minister and part of the report’s advisory group, told C&I that money put into basic infrastructure by the government and incentives for spin outs helped revitalise the country’s innovation base.

He pointed to research by technology transfer facilitator PraxisUnico that found that, in the past four and a half years, 31 spin outs have floated with a net worth of £1.56bn and another 31 companies have raised £390m. ‘We’ve gone from brain drain to brain gain, but we can go very quickly from brain gain to brain drain again,’ Sainsbury says.

Coming hot on the heels of the Royal Society report was Ingenious Britain, a report commissioned by the UK Conservative party and produced by engineering entrepreneur James Dyson. The report called for the next government to try to drive a sea change in UK culture so that science and engineering is held in ‘high esteem’. Education is also suffering, the report claims, adding that young people are not excited by careers in science and technology and graduates in these subjects are turned off by the idea of teaching. ‘I worry that too much time is spent coming up with buzzwords and initiatives like “Creative Britain”, without much substance to back them up,’ Dyson says. ‘Britain can’t PR its way out of the financial black hole.’

The report also calls on a future Conservative government to keep R&D tax credits and boost them to 200% when finances permit. The BioIndustry Association chairman, Clive Dix, welcomed the report saying, ‘R&D tax credits have proved to be essential to researchintensive companies, such as those in life science.’ The Conservative party planned to scrap the scheme, but has accepted Dyson’s recommendations to keep and possibly expand the credits.

At a recent House of Commons debate on the funding of science, the three main parties’ science ministers broadly agreed with both reports that science remains vital to the UK economy and that ring fencing the science budget made sense.

Conservative shadow science minister Adam Afriyie said that public borrowing was out of control and that this constituted the most serious threat to future science spending. He made the point that the economy needs to be fixed first. He has previously said that cuts to science are ‘inevitable’.

Paul Drayson, science minister, responded that ‘the last thing we want to do right now is endanger the recovery with harsh, deep cuts’. Science spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Evan Harris, agreed, but said that the government’s record on science spending was not good enough. Harris noted that, while spending has increased over the past 10 years, it was no more than science getting its fair share of the increase in GDP. ‘We are no further along in respect of GDP spend,’ he added. ‘We’re the lowest in the G7, apart from Italy.’

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