Count the spin outs that win out, says chief science adviser

Ensuring that knowledge translates into growth will be among the priorities the incoming government chief scientific adviser Mark Walport has set himself for the next five years.

April 20, 2013

Speaking in his first major speech since taking up the role, the former director of the Wellcome Trust said that the UK needed to break down existing barriers to growth and ensure that the right incentives are in place. 

“For example I’m not sure the useful metric is the number of spin out companies from universities. The metric surely has to be the number of successful spin out companies,” he told the Centre for Science and Policy’s annual conference on 18 April.

He added that intellectual property needed to be protected, “but we mustn’t over value it and in doing so prevent its exploitation”.

Another priority for his team in the coming years would be providing advocacy and leadership for science, including making the case for strengthening the £10 billion the government spends annually on research and development.

However to do so, Sir Mark said that scientists needed to be more systematic in collecting evidence of what has happened as a result of funding in the past.

“We must collectively demonstrate the benefits, because £10 billion is a lot of money and there need to be benefits for that expenditure… I would submit that there are an awful lot of examples [of benefits] and I’m not sure how effectively we’ve captured [them],” he said. 

The former head of the division of medicine at Imperial College London, who took over from Sir John Beddington at the start of this month, added to his list of priorities strengthening infrastructure resilience, underpinning policy with evidence and harnessing science for emergencies. 

Speaking later to journalists, Sir Mark made clear that, like his predecessor, he see his role as strictly advising government, rather than decision-making.

Despite his clear view that homeopathy was “nonsense”, for example, decisions over whether to offer it on the NHS were political, he said.

On genetic modification, he said the science case for GM plants was getting stronger and stronger, but that it could not be talked about as a technology generically. Instead we should think about it as “what organism, with what gene, for what purpose,” he said.

He added that scientists as a community needed to be proactive in providing advice, saying: “The Government Office for Science can only be as good as the quality of advice that we receive.”

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