Invest in science or risk relegation from the economic premier league

09 March 2010

The UK will face decades of slow economic decline unless it invests heavily in research - one of the country’s few genuine areas of economic competitive advantage, according to a report by the Royal Society.  The report, published today, warns that the UK’s current advantage is in danger of being wiped out by the US, China, India, France and Germany who have ramped up spending in science to boost their economies.

The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity brought together leading figures from politics, industry and science to assess the role of science in any long-term strategy for economic growth and highlights the successful but fragile nature of the UK’s innovation economy.

“As France announces a new € 35 billion investment in the knowledge economy, the UK cuts university budgets by £600 million, with the threat of more to come.  History shows us that new technologies drive economic development – look at the industrial and digital revolutions.  The UK has been in the top two of the scientific premier league for the last 350 years.  It would seem obvious that politicians would recognise the need to invest in this competitive advantage rather than cutting funds.” said Sir Martin Taylor, chair of the report’s advisory group.

The report highlights last year’s announcement of a $21 billion boost for science in the US and recent claims from American scientists that they will steal our finest minds if UK investment slips.  The report also draws attention to a recent €35 billion investment in the ‘knowledge economy’ by France, a commitment from the German government to increase their federal budget for education and research by €12 billion by 2013 and the year on year increase of 20% in China’s science spending over the last decade.

Lord Waldegrave, former science minister and current provost of Eton College commented: “Times are tough at the moment but that is exactly when you need to invest in the future and focus spending where you already have an advantage.  Science is one of the jewels in our crown but it yields its dividends over decades.  Investment in science cannot be turned on and off on a political whim - we must have a long-term investment.  If we cut science now, just as the benefits of nearly twenty years of consistent policy are really beginning to bear fruit, we will seriously damage our economic prospects.”

The report busts the familiar myth that the UK is good at science but bad at exploiting its results.  It highlights the emergence of an innovation economy in the UK with universities becoming fledgling economic powerhouses. Patents granted to UK universities have increased by 136% between 2000 and 2008 and university spin outs employed 14,000 people in 2007/08 and had a turnover of £1.1 billion. While the report also cites examples of science driving successful sectors of the economy such as pharmaceuticals, business R&D is picked out as a weakness for the UK.  In 2007 British companies spent 1.14% of GDP on R&D while in the US the figure was 1.9% and in Germany 1.8%.

To maximise the economic opportunities from science the Royal Society report recommends:

  • Creating a 15 year framework for science and innovation, with increased spending
  • Prioritising investment in scientific skills and infrastructure, such as laboratories and equipment
  • Expanding the R&D tax credit

Speaking at the launch of the report Lord Sainsbury the former science minister and member of the advisory group said: “In the last twenty years our universities have risen to the challenge of commercialising their research and figures now show that the record of our world-class universities is close to that of top American universities, with high-tech clusters growing strongly at not only Cambridge and Oxford but also in Manchester, Southampton, Surrey and York.

We cannot compete with countries such as China and India on the basis of low wages, and science and innovation must, therefore, be the basis of the strategy for growth which we need to have as we go into a tough period of fiscal consolidation.”

Also speaking at the launch, Dr David Roblin, Senior Vice-President Global R&D at Pfizer and member of the advisory group said: “Pfizer has Europe’s largest research and development facility in the UK because it gives us access to the best scientists, to collaborate with as well as to employ.  We bring together chemists, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and clinicians – the UK has world leaders in all of these fields.  The new medicines produced by our European R&D headquarters in Sandwich are a great example of what can be achieved if industrial and academic research can come together in a centre of biomedical scientific excellence, as has developed here in the UK.”

The report also contains recommendations on prioritising investment in excellent people, strengthening science within government, reinforcing the UK’s position as a hub for global science and innovation, better aligning science and innovation with global challenges and revitalising science and mathematics education.