Brussels, 03 May 2004
Save British Science (SBS) has responded to a UK government consultation on its ten year investment programme for science and innovation by urging the government not to try to predict those areas which may be of strategic importance to the UK in the future. SBS also calls on the government to support both existing areas of excellence and new potential.
The SBS response is overwhelmingly positive with regard to the government's proposals, although it does highlight a number of areas which require further attention.
'We applaud the Government for attempting to create a ten-year framework for investment in science, because we believe science, engineering and technology will continue to be significant drivers of the British economy in the coming years,' states SBS.
Responding to a government question on areas that represent 'opportunities for the UK research base to excel and contribute to the economy and society, which might form the basis of future strategic research programmes,' SBS is uncompromising. 'It would be a mistake for the Government to try to predict which particular subjects should be the focus of investment over the coming decade. There are many well-known examples of failed attempts to predict what science will prove useful and important, and we feel very strongly that no such attempt should be made now.'
In line with these comments, the SBS paper also specifies that the government should avoid setting research objectives. The government's role with regard to research should be to protect the freedom of members of the research community to pursue those ideas they believe may be most interesting, and to ensure adequate funding, states SBS.
The government's role should also include developing policies to both promote and reward current excellence and to allow potential to flourish, the organisation believes.
The paper divides the problems facing UK research into two categories: those with obvious solutions and those more difficult to resolve. 'If the Government is serious about making the UK 'one of the most competitive locations for science, research and development', then substantial progress should be made on the problems that fall into this [first] category, quickly and relatively simply. Most of them have been the subject of at least one review or consultation, and there seems to be little reason for any further delay.' The areas in this category, according to SBS, include the state of science laboratories in secondary schools and difficulties in the recruitment and retention of world class researchers.
The second category, representing problems with no obvious solution, includes the lack of private investment in research. 'It is not obvious how companies that choose to take a short-term view of the world can be encouraged or forced to behave more sensibly,' states the paper. Other issues in this category include a lack of confidence in the government's ability to obtain and use scientific advice, and a poor image of science and engineering and young people.
Save British Science does not claim to have the answers to these problems, but is confident that if the government tackles those areas in the first category, 'the rest of the scientific and business communities might do more to generate real progress for themselves.'
The organisation finishes its response with a number of comments on the UK's participation in the EU's Framework Programmes for research. SBS calculates that the UK is likely to win grants totalling around 2.5 billion euro during the course of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), but that the research carried out will actually cost around 3.14 billion euro. 'For a university, the only realistic source of funds from which this subsidy can come is the relevant funding council, the budgets of which are already stretched,' says SBS.
Reluctantly accepting that the system is unlikely to change under FP6, the paper states that 'there is no choice but for the British Government to follow the suit of other Member States, and explicitly to meet the shortfall with new money from other sources.'
The paper adds that there is some confusion over the real purpose of EU research funding. While the Treaty states that their objective is 'strengthening the scientific and technological bases of Community industry,' some believe that the real concern is transferring knowledge and skills from richer to poorer countries, claims SBS.
'It would be an admirable political aim for richer European countries to assist the poorer ones in developing their scientific potential, but we should admit that this is a different objective from funding excellent science.
'It would then be possible to develop separate programmes for investing in excellence and for developing capacity in the southern and, following expansion, eastern countries. A single blunt instrument cannot achieve both ends simultaneously.' To read the Save British Science paper in full, please visit: http://www.savebritishscience.org.uk/tex ts/documents/2004/SBS0406.pdf