Image dogs UK science, say leaders

March 5, 2004

A growing anti-science culture in the UK threatens to undermine attempts to make the country a world leader in research, scientists and government ministers agreed this week.

At a much-publicised breakfast meeting on Tuesday, Gordon Brown, the chancellor, hinted that science might receive a significant funding boost as part of a ten-year investment plan to be unveiled in July, when this year's Whitehall spending review concludes.

But leading figures from the science community warned that the sector was facing a major image problem. They said this was most evident among teenagers, many of whom were reluctant to study science.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who attended the meeting, told The Times Higher: "There was unanimity around the table that most of the problems we face have the public perception of science at their core."

Charles Clarke, the education secretary, told the meeting that the public's reaction to genetically modified crops and the measles mumps and rubella vaccine showed that mistrust of scientists was a problem.

Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, added that it was up to the research community to promote the benefits of science. During the meeting, attended by 25 leading science figures, Mr Brown emphasised the importance of science to the economy.

Several billion pounds extra a year will be needed for the UK to match the science budgets of other nations. The UK spends 0.8 per cent of its gross domestic product on research, placing it 16th in the world in terms of spending.

Peter Cotgreave, director of Save British Science, said: "If you add up all of the things we were asking for, it would come to billions of pounds."

Mr Brown will meet the chief executives of all UK companies with a major interest in research as part of the science review, which will cover the future supply of scientists as well as academic-business links.

Ian Gibson, chair of the science and technology committee, warned:

"Spin-off companies should not be the justification for good science. They are part of it, but blue-skies research is urgently required too."

The Treasury will consult with science experts, including the chief executives of the research councils, over the coming months.

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