Foresight study puts biology in top place

March 31, 1995

Biology will be the dominant science of the 21st century and Britain should commit itself to a big drive in research and exploitation of areas such as ageing and disabling degenerative diseases, the innovative use of medical information technology and the use of molecular biology in diagnostics, according to the Foresight panel report on health and life sciences.

The study calls for: * Improving university-industry links through career flexibility and university technology-transfer groups; * Modifying the research assessment exercise to encourage centres of excellence collaborating on major projects; * Funding councils to launch a major programme of capital investment in physical infrastructure for life science research in universities; * Strengthening of clinical research within the health services; * Improvements in the fiscal environment to help with the formation and financial backing of new biology-based companies; * Accelerating the development of researchers with the expertise to address emerging areas of long term importance; Mark Ferguson of Manchester University, chairman of the panel, said that the United Kingdom has excellent international standing in the area but global competition was stiffening. The panel had stressed the problems of an ageing population in the developed world, which will present major scientific and industrial opportunities, he said.

The chemicals Foresight panel looked into the future needs of a sector which currently accounts for 2-3 per cent of gross domestic product and contributes Pounds 4 billion to the balance of trade. Key technical recommendations include the setting up a new interdisciplinary Institute of Applied Catalysis, improving sensors technology for process control, boosting support for polymer science, synthesis and processing and strengthening links between chemistry and biology to underpin biochemical technology.

The panel, chaired by Alan Calder of Zeneca Specialities, says that the research assessment exercise should be adjusted to reflect the importance of multidisciplinary work and industrial collaboration. There should also be increased joint funding of projects by more than one research council, particularly the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in biotechnology.

A collaboration between Government and the car industry to design and make a mass market, environmentally friendly vehicle is one of the key recommendations of the transport panel chaired by Tom Black of Smith System Engineering. The main technical objective of the project would be to reduce car weight dramatically without compromising safety and security.

The panel is predicting that information technology will result in big improvements to vehicle safety, comfort and control. In the public and private transport domain, the panel wants more work to be done on the design of real-time information systems which integrate ticketing, booking and payment facilities seamlessly across all passenger transport.

Priority generic technologies that need to be developed for transport systems of the future include strong but light materials, fuel efficiency, quieter vehicles and pattern processing and object recognition systems.

Specific research areas include developing a clearer understanding of why people travel, the likely impact of telecommunications and creating more accurate models of transport systems.

Technology, particularly information technology, should be the priority of the financial world, according to the financial services panel. The sector accounts for at least 7 per cent of GDP and is one of the largest UK employers.

Trends include widespread use of multimedia for delivering retail financial services, more sophisticated customer profiling, a substantial reduction in the use of cheques but also better fraud detection. The panel, chaired by Michael Hughes of BZW Securities, wants improved IT education in schools, the promotion of higher standards in finance and clarification from Government of the regulatory framework for the telecommunications industry, and a big research programme to develop new methods of spotting and stopping fraud.

The construction panel forecasts huge new opportunities for the sector overseas as new markets open up, particularly in Asia and the Pacific Rim countries. The sector currently accounts for 8 per cent of GDP but is registering a Pounds 2 billion deficit in materials imports and output costs.

Key trends for the sector include customised solutions from standard components, greater construction efficiency and the construction of buildings that last only as long as required.

Progress through Partnership parts 1-5, Chemicals, Construction, Financial Services, Health and Life Sciences and Transport, HMSO Pounds 15 each.

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