Leader: The review is not just about cash

March 5, 2004

The chancellor's review of British science that will take place between now and the summer (page 2) will hear many pleas for money. But its success will be measured as much by the changes in attitude that it encourages, especially in British industry, as by the budget increases that it produces.

The UK is already being outspent on research by many of its European Union competitors. It should regard the EU target of putting 3 per cent of gross domestic product into research by 2010 as a lower limit to be exceeded in both time and money. This is one European ambition that is also in the UK's national interest.

Universities have a long and well-justified list of ways in which they could use more cash: better buildings and equipment, and an end to low pay, are among them. But the government's priority should be to persuade the users of research -mainly companies, but also the public and non-profit sectors - to do more research themselves and to buy more of it from universities. The UK economy's transition from mass manufacturing to knowledge intensity has been more rapid than in most advanced nations. But as we show this week, there are many issues to be resolved if the UK is to be the home of choice for corporate research. In the past, attracting such activity would have been justified on the strength of the manufacturing jobs that might follow in its wake. Now we are realising that it is economically beneficial in its own right.

Companies that want to use research do not always want universities to do work that is directly applicable to their business. Often they look to them to provide a proper base of theory for research that they carry out themselves or pay consultants to do. But if industry becomes more aware of the advantages of research spending, it may also decide that the present policy of concentrating academic research in a dwindling number of major centres risks going too far. Companies might prefer a small, friendly department they can visit easily to a world centre of excellence at the other end of the country.

The science review should also recognise that although there are many settings in which research can be performed, only universities produce graduates. They are the starting point for all scientific and technological activity. Although student numbers have grown, the big expansion has been outside science. Students are discerning and informed customers of what universities have to offer. If the review works, the sight of more people realising that science offers interesting and lucrative careers will be an early indicator of its success.

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