Leader: It's time to show some audacity

Blue-skies research could help lead the UK out of recession, but only if ministers give scientists the freedom to operate

April 2, 2009

As world leaders gather in London's Docklands this week for the G20 Summit, the US and the UK will stand in stark contrast in their backing of research to kick-start their economies.

Barack Obama, who moved swiftly to distance himself from George W. Bush's Presidency by promising to "restore science to its rightful place", has earmarked $21 billion (£15 billion) for science as part of his economic stimulus package to ensure future prosperity.

Here in Britain, Gordon Brown has also pledged his faith in science, but the chances of a similar package for the UK look slim. The message from Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, has been one of caution on further spending because of the scale of the country's fiscal deficit. And the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, admitted in a speech last week that he was "not confident" of seeing extra funding.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, however, is said to be putting pressure on the Treasury to follow the US example and deliver a £1 billion increase for scientific research. The 1994 Group has added its voice by calling for a focus on measures that target investment in higher education. It believes that universities are ideally placed to lift the nation out of recession by generating ideas, technological advances and business growth through knowledge transfer.

There is good evidence backing the 1994 Group's optimism. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England has shown that the £600 million invested in knowledge exchange over six years via the Higher Education Innovation Fund to encourage universities to partner with business has generated a return of up to £4.2 billion.

There is, however, more at stake here than a quick recovery. The US stimulus package won't just boost the American economy; it will also greatly enhance the research landscape for its scientists, especially now that restrictions on stem cells have been lifted. The cash will be spent not only on research, but also on updating laboratories and scientific equipment. This is a big concern for DIUS, which is keen to keep talent, especially young talent, in the UK to capitalise on the upturn when it comes.

US science had built up a store of "shovel-ready" projects before it received its increase; in this spirit, DIUS asked the research councils to compile a list of projects that could be activated quickly in the event of a funding fillip in the Budget later this month.

Whatever happens, the identification of these targets must reside with scientists. With the recession, ministers have become obsessed (perhaps understandably) with aligning research priorities with industrial strengths. The Conservative Party warns, however, that they are slowly subverting the Haldane principle, whereby researchers, rather than politicians, make decisions about research spending. Central government, it says, now controls 20 per cent of science spending, compared with 2 per cent in 1997.

For the nation, it remains a difficult balance to strike: careful management of debt versus canny investment for the future. In the US, President Obama mobilised people by speaking of the audacity of hope. Here in the UK, we too have hope. It is called blue-skies research. Now all we need is a little audacity from ministers.

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