Forget prestige: science funding is an economic matter

July 9, 2010

David Willetts today used his first major speech on science policy to emphasise the “overwhelming” economic case for science funding.

The universities and science minister said it was “inevitable” in the current fiscal climate that the Treasury would be more swayed by “hard-headed” economic considerations than arguments about how groundbreaking discoveries boost national prestige.

“There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to achieve something for your country, and fame, competition and pride are human motives that we find in every walk of life,” he told an audience at the Royal Institution this morning. “But none of this is an economic argument for being the first person to make a scientific discovery.”

Mr Willetts reiterated his support for the claim that a strong national research base made countries better able to capitalise on discoveries made elsewhere. He admitted that this was not a new argument, but said it had not been stressed enough.

He also repeated his commitment to research and innovation “clusters” and contrasted this with what he described as the previous government’s tendency to view innovation as a “sausage machine”, in which money spent on academic research inexorably led to commercially successful spin-off companies backed by venture capital.

“It is too neat and tidy an account of scientific and commercial progress,” he said, adding that the approach could also have the “perverse” effect of putting an “exaggerated focus” on intellectual property and spin-offs, which on average contributed just 3 per cent of universities’ total income from business and charity sources.

Mr Willetts said he could not talk about spending commitments until the Comprehensive Spending Review is published this autumn, but warned that the UK could not afford to emulate the examples of the US, Canada and France, which had reacted to the recession by spending more on science.

“Their public finances are in much better shape than ours,” he said.

The minister added that the state should support shared facilities such as the Diamond Light Source, which could be used by private companies that could not afford to develop such centres on their own.

As reported in Times Higher Education this week, Mr Willetts formally announced a one-year delay to the research excellence framework’s roll-out.

He also emphasised his continued support for the dual-support system and backed the push for libel reform.

“We cannot have writers facing libel charges because they offer a scientific critique of other people’s claims. This is an issue I have raised with Ken Clarke, the Lord Chancellor, and which his department recognises it must address,” he said.

Lord Lester’s libel reform bill receives its second reading in the House of Lords today. The Lib Dem peer’s work could form the basis of new legislation.

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