The government's new discussion paper on higher education is cautious about the connection between research and economic success. The links are often tenuous, but nobody can doubt the academic roots of Silicon Valley, the biggest wealth machine around, or of its smaller counterparts in the US and Europe. Turning innovation into jobs is never simple. But the European Commission's new Framework Programme for research has some of the right ideas. If it works, the continent will become a single market, larger in population than the US, for ideas and the people who create them. And unlike some products of Brussels, Framework is popular on this side of the Channel. The UK is its biggest generator of proposals, and many of its priorities, such as genomics, are areas of British strength.
Britain has much to gain from Framework proposals such as the plan for a visa that allows scientists from the developing world to do research anywhere in the European Union. Next, the UK should think how it can best influence the future of European research. It might set its face against spending close to €1 billion (£637 million) on nuclear fusion, for example.
More positively, there is scope for British expertise on public involvement in science to be more widely used. Framework's present emphasis is on spending money to avoid future arguments such as those over stem-cell research. The UK leads the world in more subtle approaches in which the public is listened to rather than lectured at. There is much that is right about UK research, including its comparatively flexible universities and relatively open research laboratories.
The UK has also been increasing its research spending, but the sums are still too small. The UK spends less than the EU average, and far less than the EU's target for 2010 of 3 per cent of gross domestic product. Figures gathered by the European Commission show that both industry and government underspend. The increasing integration of EU research will make this deficit more apparent unless money is found to close it, endangering the UK's attractiveness as a place to do world-class science. Research may have gone global, but for the UK it is still a tool of national economic competitiveness.