The Technology Foresight Programme is only a stage in a debate which must widen on how science's role in society can best be developed, says George Poste
Government desires to develop science and technology policies in support of innovation are not new, and, historically, have met with mixed success. But, recent developments in the United Kingdom are encouraging. In his contribution to The THES (February 17), David Hunt, the minister for science, described Government efforts to give focus and support to renewing enthusiasm for the use of science in pursuit of national goals. The diverse activities characterising Science Week, SET 95, have again demonstrated that there are many ways to capture the excitement of science by stimulating inquiry and discovery. In industry, our responsibility in contributing to public awareness is not only to convey the excitement of science as intellectual activity but also to explain how research and development is used in pursuit of the goals of wealth creation and enhanced quality of life.
Renewed focus on comprehending - and promoting - the value of research and development is timely. I am alarmed, however, at the continuing generalisations in the rhetoric of some academic commentators. Howard Newby (THES, February 24) says the problems can be explained by the poor capacity of UK industry to exploit the high quality of the science base, suggesting industry has made negligible response to the national initiatives on science and technology. Certainly, competitiveness problems appear innate in some sectors and new realism in innovation demands action to curtail misapplication of limited national resources in financial subsidy of sunset industries. By contrast, the UK pharmaceutical sector is recognised as world class (the 1994 Competitiveness White Paper), contributing more than Pounds 1,600 million to the balance of trade in 1993. This success is built on high R&D spending - Pounds 1,500 million in the UK in 1993, 15 per cent of sales, accounting for more than half of all investment in healthcare R&D and exceeding the total biomedical expenditures of the research councils and the major charities.
There is a common misperception that many of the inventions for new healthcare products and services come directly from universities, with the contribution of industry confined to production and marketing. This is not so. At the same time, life science-based R&D companies set great importance on the vigour and diversity of the academic sector - because of our obligation to invest R&D resources in the best ideas and tools, wherever they are found and whatever their antecedents, and to ensure the supply of appropriately trained staff. Pharmaceutical companies' high R&D spend on pioneering products and services, enable them to interact as an equal partner with the public science sector and make a considerable intellectual contribution to the total science base.
That is one of the reasons why the pharmacetical industry expresses disquiet at the recent initiative by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on overhead funding for generic research which debases the industry's significant scientific commitment to the partnership.
I am also disturbed by assertions from academics, and others, in the UK that the quality of basic science is uniformly excellent. These complacent views imply that national policy needs only to establish the best mechanism for capitalising on the excellence in academic science. In my view, these perceptions are erroneous. Urgent reform is needed to reverse the passive neglect of university infrastructure and to foster a culture of selecting and prioritising our limited resources. Action in the higher education sector must be aligned with other reforms such as those aimed at increasing the proportion of students choosing science and the moves to enhance the quality of primary and secondary science education.
Some of these reforms can be pushed along by capitalising on the energy of the Technology Foresight Programme. As we begin to see the rollout of the reports from the Foresight Panels, it is time to applaud the tremendous achievement of the Office of Science & Technology in generating the enthusiastic commitment of so many researchers in industry and academia to the programme. Comment in THES columns has noted some of the contentious issues relating to the choice of process and tools in conducting the first round of this programme.
Notwithstanding the need to learn how to do better next time, there is no doubt that the process of developing relationships in a community composed of both the practitioners and users of science has been of paramount importance.
Building partnerships aligns what is technologically feasible with what is commercially appropriable and also ensures that a strategy for discovery is not imposed by the bureaucratic dirigisme that daunted Mark Richmond in these columns in February. I suggest to Mr Richmond, and to Mr Newby, that the success of the Technology Foresight programme must be assessed both in terms of the construction of partnerships and the definition of priorities - these performance metrics are not mutually exclusive.
The report of the health and life sciences panel addresses many areas of particular importance to the pharmaceutical sector. Advances in life sciences are generating unprecedented, practical opportunities for delivering value in healthcare products and services and might, indeed, be used as a "flagship" to stimulate a wider public interest in science. Many of the cardinal themes in this panel report can be wholeheartedly endorsed. Of particular note: the emphasis on molecular genetics as a powerful tool with which to dissect complex diseases into the therapeutically approachable pathobiological mechanisms; the increasing urgency of tackling the chronic, disabling diseases, including those associated with aging, immune dysfunction and failing cognition; and the linking of preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic modalities into an integrated strategy for healthcare.
The report also rightly emphasises the imperative of training scientists and clinicians to the highest international standards, on modern equipment and in state-of-the-art technologies. I strongly support the recommendations of the panel to augment, focus and integrate science and technological training and to explore innovative ways to link academic and industrial science, without compromising the excellence of either partner. Academic research should not be forced into mimicry of industry; equally, I should like to disabuse Mr Newby of the notion that all technology-friendly companies are staffed by the academic manque.
Building on the success of the Foresight processes, I urge that the wider debate on the role of science and technology in national goals be granted further momentum, to embrace all Government departments and to examine how the drivers of public and private investment are best aligned.
We must go further: implementing science and technology policy does not just require prioritisation of resources or building partnership between academia, industry and Government, even though these activities are of great importance.
Successful formulation and interpretation of policy also necessitates extension of the discussion beyond the traditional vested interest to educate, inform and attend to the population-at-large in order to generate the shared commitment to national goals. Only then might we change those sterile scientific stereotypes identified by David Hunt as a major obstacle to the attraction of young people into science.
George Poste is chairman for research and development at SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals.