Martin Ince

December 5, 2003

Science researchers must work harder to show the applications of their labour to secure government funding.

Nobody can doubt the present British government's commitment to science.

John Prescott, deputy prime minister, underlined its enthusiasm last month by approving Cambridge University's plans for a £30 million laboratory for research making use of primates such as marmosets and macaques. Prescott overrode the local authority's rejection of the plan despite knowing that it was a sure vote-loser, viewed with hatred by animal rights enthusiasts and with caution by the police and the local authority because of its future as a magnet for protesters.

But Cambridge's reaction to central government intervention in its favour was not to rejoice. Instead, it announced that it is £7 million short of the cash it needed to build the new laboratory.

Cambridge has been accumulating assets since the Middle Ages and can doubtless find the money if it really wants. However, its remarks reinforce the point that, right now, British science feels both loved and neglected at the same time. The government will take political risks in its favour but is less likely to push the boat out financially. The Department of Trade and Industry, the paymaster for the research councils, is rumoured to be at the wrong end of the queue for cash in the forthcoming spending review. In contrast to their success in getting new money in recent spending reviews, the councils now regard a level settlement - no new cash in real terms - as the likeliest result this time around.

The environment for the spending review is ferocious. The cost of an indefinite occupation of Iraq has been added to big demands from transport, health and others at a time when tax revenues are far from buoyant.

But the real question is a longer-standing one. Exactly what is the state buying when it pays for science? For some, the answer is obvious. The production of new knowledge is a basic human characteristic. If economic justification is needed, it can be shown that good research means new products and processes. And university research produces a flow of skilled professionals who are needed by the private sector, in government and elsewhere.

Many of the UK's most successful companies are in industries such as pharmaceuticals that depend on top researchers. Industry's leading lights approve of basic research and have been keen to see the UK spend more in areas such as genomics. For them, there is a direct link between their profits and UK spending on high-level research.

But elsewhere in UK high technology the connection between basic research and saleable products is not regarded as being quite so obvious.

Rolls-Royce is a mainstay of UK materials research, which feeds directly into its development of new aircraft engines. Of the 18 University Technology Centres that it funds to push its research, 14 are in the UK.

But it is threatening to concentrate spending elsewhere because too much UK research is abstract. It is calling for more applied research that it can use more easily. The same thinking may be going on at GKN, another major UK manufacturer that is contemplating where in the world to put its new materials research centre.

Rolls-Royce's doubts about the value of basic research are echoed by sceptics in Whitehall, notably at the Treasury. The fact that the taxpayer's cash is allocated by peer review may seem to be proof of good practice. It shows that the best research is being supported without political or personal favour. It certainly levels the playing field between work that has immediate applications and research that does not. But if an enterprise receives billions to spend as it sees fit, it should not be surprised to be asked for proof that the money is being put to good use.

Success in future government spending rounds will depend on better answers to these questions. History is on the researcher's side here. The world is a far more complex place than it used to be. Technology is only part of the story. Society needs people who can produce original, evidence-based thinking on topics such as climate change, immigration or cyber crime.

Universities are usually the best place to find them.

This is an argument for good researchers to be properly funded, but they in turn need to work harder to make sure that their thinking is properly appreciated. Nanotechnology, which has received £90 million of DTI money, is a case in point. It calls for new knowledge in every area of science and engineering and for clear thinking about how it will interact with existing social and economic systems.

UK research will have to learn to justify itself better. But just sometimes it should remind the government that good research pays for itself by being available for unexpected challenges as well as for those that can be anticipated.

Martin Ince is contributing editor of The THES .

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