Science Minister calls for a focus on research that boosts economy

Life sciences and earth sciences identified as key areas, but others could lose out, writes Zoe Corbyn

January 29, 2009

The UK should narrow its research effort to key areas that boost the economy and deliver economic benefits, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, has said.

But he acknowledged that his call would cause unrest, because a policy to concentrate efforts in certain areas would come at the expense of other subjects.

During a science "question time" before the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Skills and Science Select Committee this week, Lord Drayson told MPs that the UK's competitors were making "strategic choices" about where they wanted to focus their research to deliver jobs and growth.

He said they were "marshalling their resources", which included attempts to entice away leading UK academics and companies.

"In that environment ... I think we need to have a hard-nosed look at where we have real strategic advantage," Lord Drayson said. "In business, in life you have to choose what it is you are going to focus on."

He called for a "serious debate" about where the UK was "best placed" to compete in the future, based on both its research and industrial strengths and the need to rebalance the economy in the face of the downturn.

"There is a real need for us to debate this question and to come to a settled view.

"(This) is a debate that I know will cause some interest, but I do think it is one that we need to have because it is the reality of the environment we are operating in as a country."

He stressed that this would mean "difficult choices".

Asked where he thought the UK should concentrate its efforts, Lord Drayson identified life sciences and earth sciences as areas where the country could capitalise.

"I sincerely believe we could be the world's best at life sciences if we put our minds to it," he said.

He stressed that to deliver this, the UK would still require a broad research base that produced statisticians and physicists.

Lord Drayson also acknowledged that his vision would require universities to educate more people in certain areas, which would mean having a debate about whether the market-based policies that have led to a rise in media students at the expense of science students were appropriate.

"We are right at the start of this conversation ... (but) these are exactly, I think, the questions we need to answer," he said.

Lord Drayson's comments amounted to the most explicit message so far from the Government about how far it is seeking to push its agenda to realign the UK's research base to support national strategic priorities.

Researchers in the arts and humanities and in physics faced cuts to their research councils' programmes last year, as investment was increased in medical research.

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