We'll shift Britain's economic engine from the City to the science laboratories, Prime Minister says

March 5, 2009

Science is to be the key to the UK's economic recovery, the Prime Minister has said.

In a lecture given at the University of Oxford last week, Gordon Brown said he would shift the economy from its dependence on financial services towards science and technology. He also pledged to protect science funding from the effects of the recession.

The Prime Minister said: "Some say that now is not the time to invest, but the bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science.

"We will not allow science to become a victim of the recession, but rather focus on developing it as a key element of our path to recovery. That is why we will maintain the ring-fence we have placed around science funding."

At a Universities UK meeting last week, Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, is understood to have pondered the likely effects of the US economic stimulus package on UK academics.

About $16 billion (£11.3 billion) of the US Government's $850 billion stimulus package will go to science and technology research and development.

President Barack Obama's first budget included an extra $6 billion for cancer research alone in 2010. There are concerns that the increased funding could lead to a brain drain of UK academics to the US.

On the same day as the Prime Minister's speech, Lord Krebs, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, stressed the need for investment in blue-skies research.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Lord Krebs stopped short of saying that the balance in funding for directed and blue-skies research was wrong, but said: "If you're going to invest in science, give scientists the freedom to explore the best ideas that they have on the basis of pure excellence, and great commercial benefit will derive, but in ways you can't predict."

The comments followed an open letter published last month in Times Higher Education and written by 20 leading academics, including Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto and eight fellows of the Royal Society.

They called for a "revolt" against new rules instituted by the UK's research councils requiring academics applying for research grants to explain the potential economic and social benefits of their research.

The research councils should "decide that the national interest can best be served by fostering the environments in which creativity can flourish", the academics say in their letter, which has attracted considerable support from academics posting on Times Higher Education's website.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comments.asp?storycode=405350.

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