Boris: scientists in UK have ‘certain fastidiousness about money’

Commercialising research can do ‘far more’ for humanity than Nobel Prizes, says Mayor of London

April 8, 2014

Source: landmarkmedia/

UK scientists should be more willing to embrace the idea that commercialising breakthroughs can do “far more” for humanity than winning Nobel Prizes, according to Boris Johnson.

The Mayor of London said the scientific community in Britain had the “best brains in the world” but sometimes had a “certain fastidiousness about money”.

Mr Johnson was speaking at the launch of MedCity, a new company that will create a life science cluster in London and south-east England that will help channel “intellectual pre-eminence into a positive impact on our economy”.

MedCity will link the “golden triangle” of academic power that is London, Oxford and Cambridge and has the ambition to build up a life sciences sector that is as significant as financial services.

It has been established by the Mayor in collaboration with the health science centres associated with King’s College London, Imperial College London and University College London, as well as the co-operation of the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

The hub is modelled on East London’s Tech City Investment Organisation, and will work to foster partnerships, draw in funding and promote work in the life sciences from discovery right through to manufacture.

Mr Johnson said that there was a “valley of death” between a scientific idea and the UK’s ability to commercialise it. He said some of the blame lied with a lack of ambition in the financial sector, adding that venture capitalists in the UK do not have the “very gung-ho” approach of those in America.

“We have not been as successful as some other cities in converting those breakthroughs into cash. That is why we have decided to help and set up MedCity,” he said.

But he added that the scientific community’s lack of commercial ambition could also be in part to blame. “The scientific community in Britain have been doing wonderful work where we have the best brains in the world but perhaps there is a certain fastidiousness about money and about the idea that if you commercialise your breakthrough you could do far more for the benefit of humanity than by just winning a Nobel Prize,” Mr Johnson said.

“An important part of the function of MedCity is to try and encourage that spirit of commercialisation,” he added.

Deputy mayor for business and enterprise, Kit Malthouse, said that the South East was going through “an incredible period of academic ambition” and the challenge was to capture it. “Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Kings and UCL are all going through periods of heavy investment in research and new facilities,” he said.

This is in addition to London’s Institute of Cancer Research and the Francis Crick Institute, which is due to open next year and includes investments from the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. 

Mr Malthouse said that bringing five fiercely competitive institutions together was a first. But the group are much stronger together than they are apart when it comes to “taking on the world” and “attracting the critical investment that we need”.

Sir Robert Lechler, executive director of King’s Health Partners, said that London has a “great history of being less than the sum of its parts” because it had a “habit of competing at the expense of collaboration”.

He added that getting the five universities to work together has been a gradual process that took five years, and that institutions have not lost the “competitive genes completely”.

“I think we have all woken up to the fact that if we want to be competitive on the world stage then there is value to be achieved by partnering as opposed to just competing,” Sir Robert added.

The Mayor of London’s office has committed £1.2 million to the project and the Higher Education Funding Council for England is investing £2.9 million.

David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at Hefce, said: “In an increasingly globalised world, universities play a crucial part both as anchors of the economy in their cities and regions, and as sources of international competitive advantage.”

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Reader's comments (6)

The emerging strategy of concentrating more scarce public research investment funds in Research Institutes and Technology Centres underpinned with research university consortia expertise, presumably could prove fruitful if industry and commerce were also successfully jointly drawn in with leveraged private commercial finance. Indeed some of our most challenging international competitor economies seem to have operated in this like manner. Presumably though, the diverted public funds/resources will mostly have to come out of the existing regular Research Councils' budget allocations. But hopefully leaving enough Hefce QR to ensure independent scholarly activity for curiosity driven research by individual subject specialists or sub-departmental subject teams across the full HE sector.
But hopefully leaving enough Hefce QR to ensure independent scholarly activity for curiosity driven research by individual subject specialists or sub-departmental subject teams across the full HE sector. Hmm... On what basis?
Heaven forbid we have even one group of hard-working, talented and skilled professionals in this country that _isn't_ primarily interested in profit. That would be catastrophic.
'Hmm... On what basis?' for QR funding. Were 'big' research to greatly expand, seconded researchers will likely be continuously drawn away from their home university activities and so require replenishment. Thus, QR would perhaps still be needed to fund time and resources for personal academic scholarship to underpin and enhance teaching (and help curiosity investigation) - monitored as now through published output, but possibly less mechanically(REF). Although in a private student fees system this aspect perhaps could be mostly funded by each HEI as CPD. But might be vulnerable without some QR as a national safety net to encourage 'good' practice - note the relatively low level of research activity outside the RGs. Also direction and supervision of Masters and MPhil/PhD students in particular, although the emerging Doctoral Training Centres programme will probably increasingly be funded from RC budgets, I suppose.
From the article: "Sir Robert Lechler, executive director of King’s Health Partners, said that London has a “great history of being less than the sum of its parts” because it had a “habit of competing at the expense of collaboration”." No doubt true and there are seveal parts of the article alluding to the benefits of co-operation rather than competition. However, if higher education institutes are, as we are often told, competing in a higher education market and league tables so important to management isn't it inevitable that competition will dominate?
'competition will dominate' Perhaps when a university's research unit has consistently achieved REF 4* rating, it presumably is capable of self-support without further QR and RC funding, and possibly thereafter should be required to reform as a commercially focused Research Institute in consortium with similar subject units in other universities and private/public sector/ charity research sponsors (as is commonplace in some systems abroad). The most commercially promising output presumably could feed into further collaborative arrangements managed through the Catapult Centres or sponsored by private enterprise as appropriate. The freed up QR and RC funds would thus be available to support upcoming curiosity research, doctoral training and associated professional CPD.

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