Leader: Short-term outlook, no blue skies

By forcing academics to do R&D for industry, ministers stifle the type of curiosity-driven work that delivers the biggest bangs

February 12, 2009

The scientists who have put their names to a letter published in this issue calling for an end to the research councils' overemphasis on economic impact are taking a brave stand.

While we all want to ensure that taxpayer-funded research benefits our society and economy, it is muddled thinking to make funding for blue-skies research contingent on the economic and social benefits it might deliver. As the letter points out, who on earth is in a position to predict where cutting-edge research will take us? In fact, a Russell Group report issued late last year found that the commercialisation of blue-skies research generated twice the average returns of applied research.

Such a policy also ignores valuable lessons from the past. This is eloquently illustrated by the example of laser devices cited by Donald Braben, one of the letter's signatories. Lasers are used today in everything from surgical procedures to light displays, but it was not until 20 years after the technology was invented by the Nobel prizewinning scientist Charles Townes that industry began to see its potential (Professor Townes certainly did not). What would happen today if a scientist sought funding from UK research councils to pursue inquiry on similar lines?

The scientists' letter also notes the failure of industry to invest in its own research and development - still the most tried-and-tested method of delivering short-term economic impact. Data show that British companies spent far less as a proportion of their profits on R&D than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average (1.1 per cent in 2006 against an OECD average of nearly 1.6 per cent). The UK figure has been declining since the 1980s (although data from the Government's latest business scorecard do show an increase in top firms' expenditure).

The unpalatable truth is that industry is increasingly seeing it as academia's role to undertake its R&D. Rather than trying to force academics to deliver market gains, government policy should focus on raising the sums British companies spend on R&D. But as the letter points out, academics are far easier to take on than big business. Yet such a stance is unlikely to bring big returns for UK plc quickly. Unlike academic research, industrial research can be directed from the centre: Britain can decide on the areas in which it wishes to excel and then create policies that deliver.

This is, admittedly, no easy task. Yes, there is a recession and yes, science and business policy come under different government departments; but if the aim is wealth creation from research, it is the only sensible policy. Lord Drayson, who controversially called for a debate on narrowing the research effort to areas that boost the economy, would do well to remember this.

The research councils are in a difficult position. In light of government requests for proof of value for money, they are trying to make scientists think about how their research can be used. But the letter writers want a little more courage from the councils in dealing with Government: researchers need to know that the councils are on their side.

The scientists' cause is a worthy one: arguing for the need to retain a spirit of adventure and unbridled optimism that can produce the chance discovery that leads to something that we cannot even conceive of today. That freedom to pursue unfettered the research that will drive innovation should never be constrained, especially as the economic gloom descends and it becomes harder than ever to see the blue skies beyond.


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