Royal Society launches inquiry into the long-term prospects for UK science and innovation

01 April 2009

The Royal Society has today embarked on an 11-month inquiry into the role that science will play in equipping Britain to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges of the next fifty years. The Fruits of Curiosity: science, innovation and future sources of wealth will look beyond the current 10-Year Investment Framework to assess the long-term direction of UK research policy and investment.

Speaking at the launch of the inquiry, Sir Martin Taylor said: "We have to seize this opportunity to reshape our economy, based on science and innovation. British scientists and engineers led the industrial revolution and made the UK one of the world's great economic powers. Today our scientists remain among the best in the world. It is time we put their ideas more effectively to work. Our study will lay the foundations for a new approach to science, innovation and the creation of wealth. We are particularly keen to explore how policies for science and innovation can be better aligned with the transition to a low-carbon economy."

The Royal Society study will identify areas of science and research where Britain already has, or could soon occupy, a position of global leadership. It will look at how our scientific and research strengths can be maintained in the context of increasingly fierce global competition. It will also recommend how more of our world-class ideas can be translated into new products, services and economic opportunities.

The inquiry is set against the backdrop of an economic crisis which has prompted intense debate about the sectoral mix of the UK economy. In his Romanes Lecture in Oxford on 27 February, the Prime Minister argued that the recession provides an opportunity to "rebalance" the economy, away from finance and towards more research-intensive, high-technology sectors.  He 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 but to build more vigorously for the future."

The study will be led by Sir Martin Taylor, Vice President of the Royal Society and will draw on the expertise of a high-level Advisory Group, which includes;

  • Two Nobel Laureates - Sir Paul Nurse FRS and Sir Martin Evans FRS
  • Leaders of high-tech, research-intensive companies - Dr David Roblin, Vice President of Global R&D for Pfizer and Paul Mountford, President, Emerging Markets, Cisco Systems Ltd
  • Two former Ministers for Science - Lord Sainsbury FRS and Lord Waldegrave
  • Richard Lambert, Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry
  • Dame Ann Dowling FRS FREng, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Cambridge
  • Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust
  • Prof Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the European Research Council.

The Royal Society is keen to move beyond outdated dichotomies between pure' and applied' research, towards a richer understanding of how a vibrant and diverse research base creates value in many different ways: through the supply of skilled individuals; through contributions to wealth creation and quality of life; or through simply discovering more about the world we live in.
The inquiry will in some ways be a UK equivalent to the US National Academies' 2005 study Rising Above the Gathering Storm', which had a profound impact on science policy debates internationally, and has shaped many of the policies now being adopted by the Obama administration."Today, the economic storm that confronts the UK and other nations is different to that envisaged by the Gathering Storm report," said Sir Martin Taylor, "but the need for vision, leadership and rigorous analysis from the scientific and research community has never been greater."
Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society added: "We can't predict the 21st century counterparts of quantum theory, the double helix and the computer nor where the great innovators of the future will get their formative training and inspiration. But one thing seems certain: unless we get smarter, we'll get poorer. Our relative standing will sink unless some of the key creative ideas of the 21st century germinate and are exploited here in the UK."

The Fruits of Curiosity report will be published in March 2010 during the 350th Anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society.  While celebrating the vision of its founders in 1660, the Society wants to reaffirm the vital contribution that science has and continues to make to wealth creation, social progress and environmental sustainability.