UK risks ‘relegation’ from top scientific nations, warns Royal Society

The national academy says Britain cannot afford to cut science funding at a time when other nations are increasing their investment. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 9, 2010

The UK could be relegated from the “Premier League” of scientific nations if it fails to invest heavily in scientific research, the Royal Society has warned.

The national academy of science has issued its starkest warning yet of the fate that could befall the country’s science standing if investment shrinks after the general election.

The long-awaited report from the society’s The Fruits of Curiosity inquiry aims to convince politicians that science spending should grow rather than decline in tough times.

Sir Martin Taylor, former vice-president of the Royal Society and chair of the group that produced the report, said UK science was currently world class.

“But without the right kind of funding we could lose our Premier League status and get relegated,” he said. “Putting it bluntly, we are a bit like Manchester United, but if we are not careful we could end up a bit like Leeds United [a third-tier football club].”

The report warns of the rise of China and India and notes the scientific stimulus packages that governments around the world are putting in place, urging the incoming government to use the UK’s strength in science to fuel economic recovery and drive growth.

A new long-term commitment to increased expenditure on science and research is needed, it says, calling for an outline of public spending plans for the next 15 years.

Sir Martin insisted that the society was not “whistling into the wind” in asking for greater investment, pointing out that the French government had recently announced a large scientific stimulus package when scientists had feared cuts.

“Science is the jewel in the nation’s crown at a moment when there aren’t many other jewels to be found,” he said.

The report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, also suggests that research councils should rejig funding to focus on “people” rather than on pre-defined projects and programmes and says it is a “myth” that the UK is good at science but bad at exploiting the results.

The report was compiled by a team which included former science ministers Lord Sainsbury and Lord Waldegrave.

It comes as the British entrepreneur Sir James Dyson publishes advice to the Conservative Party on how to improve innovation.

His report, Ingenious Britain, argues that while the UK excels at university-based research, little blue-skies research is shared or used commercially by UK companies.

The government should seek to reform how universities are funded and assessed in order to give them flexibility to provide what students and companies want, it says, recommending options such as shorter courses with industry experience.

Contradicting the Royal Society report, it says: “With a few exceptions, we are not world class at taking ideas out of the university and into the market.”

For a full report, see Times Higher Education on 11 March.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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