White paper raises a cheer

August 4, 2000

A Pounds 1 billion boost for science is only a first step, Paul Nightingale says

Last week's Excellence and Opportunity white paper is a step in the right direction for British science. Instead of spin, the government has produced a well-thought document that identifies and attempts to remedy some major problems, based on a chain-link model of innovation.

The first link is the under-funded science base. British universities will be directly allocated Pounds 1 billion for science infrastructure, avoiding the bureaucracy of the Joint Infrastructure Fund.

The paper includes Pounds 250 million for "basic technology research" in areas with potential commercial application, such as genomics, "e-science" (tools and methods for dealing with large data-sets), nano-technology and bio-engineering.

There is also support for multi-disciplinary research and changes to the research assessment exercise. Especially welcome are changes to immigration policy that will open opportunities for foreign-born scientists and engineers.

The second link is knowledge transfer, where a new stream of funding is proposed. Caution is needed, as knowledge does not always flow from universities to industry. Often industry knows more, not less, than universities, and practice precedes theory. The Wright brothers, for example, flew before anyone understood aerodynamics. The United Kingdom already does more industry-funded university research and development than the United States (7.2 per cent against 5.8 per cent). UK universities could be more entrepreneurial, but the evidence shows that universities tend to be poor commercial agents. Their role is to produce talented students and researchers, not technology. The paper recognises this and notes that industry finds high-quality, publicly funded, academic research most useful.

The third link is industry, where the paper emphasises the role of industrial clusters in regional development. Apart from a section on growing competition, the paper says little about the low level of private research and development. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that the UK had a negative growth rate in R&D funding between 1986 and 1997 (coming 20th out of 21 countries with only reunified Germany doing worse). But it recognises that the problem is in industry.

The last link is consumer acceptance of new technology, where the government is going to update regulatory processes and offer stronger guidelines for science advisers. The white paper accepts that our ability to perform world-class research depends on universities paying enough to recruit and keep the best scientists. But it has not properly addressed the poor salaries and contracts of junior researchers, who are to replace scientists who retire.

The ambition that the UK could become a major hub of the scientific world is laudable, but we are a long way off. Although UK science is excellent, universities suffer from low pay, high bureaucracy, and under-funding. We would need a 67 per cent increase in funding to match US levels. Creative thinking is required and radical change is needed. The white paper is a step in the right direction, but only the first step.

Paul Nightingale works in the Complex Product System Innovation Centre at the University of Sussex.

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