The science of the possible

February 21, 1997

George Poste calls on the Dearing inquiry to prioritise research funding

Pharmaceuticals is the United Kingdom's most successful industry with a long tradition of pioneering accomplishment in life sciences and biomedical research.

More recently, it has been in the vanguard of the application of genetics to the quest for new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics and in uniting biology, computing in bioinformatics, structural biology and epidemiology. In addition to its role in the advancement of global health, the industry is a leading contributor to the nation's export ledger and employs over 75,000 people, many with graduate or doctoral-level qualifications.

SmithKline Beecham (SB) and other UK research-based pharmaceutical companies have expressed profound concerns about shortcomings in government research funding to universities, particularly to support equipment and infrastructure needs. Furthermore, outdated discipline-based university curricula and department structures are failing to train graduates in the inter-disciplinary skills demanded by contemporary science and technology. The science base is a national asset that must be nurtured. Research and development-intensive companies such as SB wish to continue to invest in the UK, but are faced with increasingly attractive reasons to locate research abroad for both intellectual and financial reasons.

The retreat from science evident in secondary education, the outmoded science teaching methods in schools and progressive societal indifference to the economic and intellectual resources needed to sustain high-technology industry represent an equally dangerous threat to future prosperity in a global economy in which such endeavours will command a high competitive premium.

These criticisms of policy transcend political party. They are the cumulative product of three decades of the relegation of science and technology to the fringes of national policy. Science, engineering and technology reach the agenda only when there is a crisis such as Brent Spar, BSE or enterotoxigenic meat pies.

Over the past three years the pharmaceutical industry has become vocal in its concern. In turn, industry must be prepared to play its part to shape policy and to contribute financial and intellectual resources to training and research. SB has launched a series of policy meetings to engage influential figures from academia, government and industry in debating these issues. The third, latest, report from these dialogues is published next week.

While many of the problems reside within higher education, equally complex policy issues must be faced by other government departments. How best to provide science education in schools? How should vocational training in science be advanced? Are fiscal policies for innovation and entrepreneurship adequate? How does legislative action encourage or impede science and its industrial applications? Has the scale of the competitive challenge really been quantified and comprehended?

The Foresight exercise, the Department of Trade and Industry's Biotechnology Crusade and ministers and senior officials' new willingness to discuss policy are welcome. When science got a specific mention in the last Budget, it gave a clear signal that it mattered. But the impact of the new money for science equipment is a partial reversal of funding cuts initiated in the 1995 Budget on grounds of misplaced optimism that alternative funding could be attracted by the Private Finance Initiative.

But are these isolated developments? I question some of the sweeping generalisations about research excellence made following the 1996 research assessment exercise. Reference to the curate's egg might be more appropriate. In the life sciences only biochemistry, and perhaps pharmacology, rank as genuine national assets; few other sciences are so promising. For the pharmaceutical industry, the low rank for chemistry is of concern. There are strong suspicions of grade drift since the 1992 exercise, compounded by apparent gamesmanship by some universities to alter the boundaries of the research assessed. The narrow departmental focus of the RAE accords no recognition to whether universities have grasped the nettle to prepare for a future founded on inter-disciplinary excellence. The RAE is still too introspective and lacks input from international referees.

The UK cannot sustain scientific excellence without a commitment to a more focused funding of university research, and a relentless quest for superiority defined by the demanding metric of international comparisons. Such proposals may be condemned as elitist but the Dearing inquiry must address the vexing question of prioritisation that is at the heart of policy confusion and academic decline.

George Poste is chairman, research and development of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals.

* Copies of the 1996 R&D Policy Symposium Report and a summary of the 1996 working group meetings are available from Dr R. Fears, Director, Science Policy, SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, New Frontiers'Science Park, Third Avenue, Harlow Essex, CM19 5AW.

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