The new science Enlightenment

January 29, 1999

What will be the big scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century? Leading scientists peek into the future...

Top scientists on both sides of the Atlantic say that over the next century science will revolutionise our understanding of who and how we are, with huge medical benefits and ethical implications.

On the cusp of the 21st century, a global pattern of increased public investment in science and technology is emerging, with genetics leading the way.

Japan leads nations boosting science budgets for 1999 with an 8.1 per cent increase. Japan is on course to double public research spending by 2001. The UK, US and Germany are also increasing their science spending.

Sir Aaron Klug, president of the Royal Society, says: "I am struck by how many countries around the world, from quite different cultural traditions and stages of development, recognise science and technology as central to their futures."

The UK government has promised to raise its science budget by almost 15 per cent over the next three years. In the US, the National Institutes of Health's budget increased by 15 per cent in 1999, while that of the National Science Foundation rose by 7 per cent.

The Russian, German and Spanish governments have promised substantial increases in funding for science in 1999.

George Radda, chief executive of the UK's Medical Research Council, says:

"I think there is a general optimism at the moment. Most of the advanced countries are realising science has an important role to play in wealth creation and public health."

But the increases are unlikely to be across the board, and there are no guarantees that the rises will continue.

In the UK, the biggest increases are in the bio and biomedical sciences, with post-genome research leading the way, while particle physics and astronomy sees its budget stay level in real terms.

In Germany, any increases are expected to be targeted on health and environmental research, while in the US, health and biomedical research are the big winners. Nasa's budget is falling at the expense of space and engineering. In Japan, brain and genome research is boosted.

In future, there is optimism that USscience research may benefit, though some fear social security spending and defence increases will leave science pinched.

In the UK, though the science budget is set for the next three years, there are no guarantees that science will win similar support next time around.

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