Brussels, 25 Jul 2005
The UK government has published the first annual progress report on implementation of its ten-year science and innovation investment framework, concluding that a solid start has been made, but acknowledging that significant challenges still remain.
The UK government announced its ten-year vision for science and innovation in July 2004, and drew up a set of indicators against which progress could be monitored. The vision included the ambition that public and private investment in research and development (R&D) should reach 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2014, from its current level of 1.9 per cent.
Whilst the authors of this first annual report accept that it is too early to assess the impact of many of the long term policies set out in the ten-year framework, they argue that there are many positive signs of progress. Under the heading 'Research excellence', the report argues that: 'The UK has successfully maintained its position as second in the world for research excellence in the face of intense global competition.'
Measures introduced to bolster the UK's research excellence include the creation of a new performance management framework for the Research Councils in order to improve the strategic management of public research funds. Steps have also been taken to improve the government's own use and management of science and technology, for example by ensuring that the best research is applied to its policy making.
In terms of the 'responsiveness of the UK science base to the economy', the next heading, the report paints a mixed picture. While university income from spin-out companies and licenses has fallen compared with previous years, patent applications and income from contract research have both increased. Looking ahead, the government predicts that a more predictable allocation process for the higher education innovation fund will enhance support for knowledge transfer and the commercialisation of research from universities in England.
Of all the challenges facing the ten-year investment framework, the one that presents a 'significant challenge' for the government is raising business investment in R&D. 'In 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available), UK business investment in R&D rose by 2 per cent in real terms, but needs to rise faster than trend GDP growth if the government's long-term ambition is to be achieved,' reads the report. To address this need, the UK will introduce further R&D tax credits and a promise by government departments to spend 2.5 per cent of their research procurement budgets on small and medium sized enterprises.
The remaining two areas covered by the report - the supply of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. and public attitudes to science - are considered as key issues for the delivery of everything else set out in the framework. For the former, the picture is again unclear: statistics suggest that interest for STEM subjects in higher education is increasing and that recruitment of science teachers is improving, but the number of A-level entries (usually studied by 16 to 18 year olds) in some sciences continues to decline.
The situation is improving with regard to public opinion towards science, however, with a recent MORI poll finding that 80 per cent of adults in the UK agree that science makes a positive contribution to society. The government promises to 'continue to work to support an informed public debate on controversial issues such as stem cell research and nanotechnology'.
The report concludes by revealing that priorities in the coming year will include full implementation of the new performance management system for the Research Councils, making further progress towards covering the full economic costs for research, and developing a better understanding of the supply and demand for STEM skills to inform future policy.
Peter Cotgreave, director of the campaign for science and engineering in the UK (CaSE), offered a cautious welcome for the report, saying: 'There have been worrying rumours from 'senior Treasury sources' and ambiguous answers to Parliamentary questions, suggesting that the Government may have been planning to cut back on its plans for science, but it appears from today's announcement that Gordon Brown has decided after all to support science at the levels he originally planned.'
To download a copy of the report, please consult the following web address: