Dark clouds threaten UK prosperity if blue-skies research not a priority

Science bodies issue warnings about budget cuts and directed funding, Zoë Corbyn writes

March 11, 2010

Two of the country's top science advisory bodies have emphasised the importance of protecting curiosity-driven research, warning that the UK's long-term prosperity could be jeopardised if the focus is put too firmly on directed research.

Both the Royal Society and the Council for Science and Technology (CST) - the prime minister's top-level independent advisory body - have issued reports that also warn of dire consequences if the science budget is cut and stress the need to sustain research funding in the face of growing competition from the likes of China and India.

The bodies hint that the balance between pure curiosity-driven work and managed research may be out of kilter.

The Royal Society's report, The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity, says: "We recommend that the UK research councils direct an increased proportion of their responsive-mode (blue-skies) budgets to investigator-led research awards.

"The conventional approach to research funding is to support pre-defined projects, programmes and research institutes. But the benefits of research are often serendipitous and may not match those envisaged in a grant proposal. Scientists need flexibility to exploit the new opportunities and questions that emerge from their research."

Meanwhile, the CST urges the government to maintain a "broad range" of research capabilities and to continue to prioritise excellence in blue-skies funding decisions.

"The aim should be to ensure a broad range of excellent upstream (blue-skies) research," it says. "Attempts at upstream prioritisation on the basis of projected impacts are not feasible."

The bodies also warn of a bleak future if science funding is not sustained.

Sir Martin Taylor, former vice-president of the Royal Society and chair of the group that produced its report, said that the UK could be relegated from the "Premier League" of scientific nations if it failed to invest heavily in the area.

The society's report urges an incoming government to use the UK's strength in science to fuel economic recovery and drive growth, and asks it to outline a 15-year spending plan.

The call is echoed in the CST's report, Vision for UK Research, which warns of "managed or neglected decline" unless a "clear long-term vision" for research is set.

The analyses come as the entrepreneur James Dyson publishes advice to the Conservative Party on how Britain can improve at innovation.

His report, Ingenious Britain, argues that the UK needs to take more action to exploit university research and says a disjointed system means that little of our blue-skies research is shared or used commercially by companies.

"With a few exceptions, we are not world-class at taking ideas of the university into the market," it argues.

This contradicts the Royal Society report, which says it is a "myth" that the UK is good at science but bad at exploiting the results.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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