UK's 'smart' research policy is praised by top US adviser

June 25, 2004

A top US science adviser has praised the UK Government's science policy saying he wished that American leaders had the same vision.

Charles Wessner, director of the technology and innovation programme for the US National Research Council, said that while the US had more money it lacked focus. Meanwhile, he said, the UK was making "smart" investments in research and innovation.

Dr Wessner's comments came just days before Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is expected to announce an unprecedented rise in science spending as part of a ten-year investment plan.

Speculation is growing that the Chancellor will unveil his plan for science early next week.

The science community is waiting with cautious excitement, following revelations in The Times Higher on June 11 that Mr Brown intends to more than double spending on science and innovation over a ten-year period.

Government insiders predicted the budget would rise by 5.7 per cent a year in the decade beginning 2006-07. They said the ultimate aim is for UK spending on research and development to reach 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of the ten-year period.

Speaking in a personal capacity after addressing a Cambridge-MIT Institute conference in Cambridge last week, Dr Wessner commended Tony Blair and his government for making speeches about why science and the need to translate research into applications are important.

Dr Wessner said: "I wish our leaders would have the same focus. The UK is making a sustained effort to put new money into science in a smart way, and it deserves credit for that."

The National Research Council advises the US government on science, engineering and medicine, and Dr Wessner said there was a myth that the US has a considered science and innovation policy. "There is no science ministry. There is really no central plan," he said.

He admitted that, while the multiple sources of US government policy-making meant the system was responsive to new challenges, it also led to a lack of coherence that could damage innovation.

The US accounted for 37 per cent of the global research and development budget in 2001, compared with the UK's 4 per cent, but Dr Wessner said the figures were misleading.

More than half of the $132 billion (£72 billion) spent by the American government on research went to the military, while research funding for physics, chemistry and engineering by universities and industry fell in the 1990s.

Dr Wessner, who also advises the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development science and technology policy committee, said the UK was a global leader in biotechnology, nanoscience and other cutting-edge science-based industries.

The strong links between universities and industry and the role played by organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Cambridge Science Park were singled out for praise.

Dr Wessner, who is also a visiting professor at Nottingham University, believes America can learn lessons from Britain as well as share initiatives worth emulating this side of the Atlantic.

One is the Small Business Innovation Research programme, set up in the US in 1982 and funded by a set-aside from federal agencies' research and development budgets.

Now worth $2 billion a year, he said awards made through the programme directly help academics set up companies that create high-tech jobs. "SBIR is a proven mechanism in an uncertain game," Dr Wessner said.

Finland is setting up an SBIR-type scheme and the European Commission has also recommended it.

SBIR: www.sba.gov/sbir
National Research Council: www.nas.edu/nrc

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