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Anniversary Address from Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society

30 November 2016

Today the Royal Society celebrates Anniversary Day. Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, looks back at his first year as President and reflects on the challenges facing the science community in the coming years.

Venki Ramakrishnan

"Over a year ago, I felt very honoured to be elected your President. As many of you know, I came to Britain relatively late in life, had few lifelong connections here and little experience outside the confines of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

"The trust you placed in me was therefore very touching, and reflected the openness of the Society and its Fellowship. However, when I accepted the position, few of us could have foreseen some of the challenges ahead as a result of the changed political circumstances both here and in the USA.

"Many pundits have suggested that these changes are not new, and represent a retreat into nationalism and protectionism as a result of inequalities brought about by globalisation. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Ruchir Sharma, the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, this is not new. He points out that the outbreak of World War I ended four decades of rising migration and trade, with huge flows of goods, money and people across borders, in which millions benefited. As today, it was the elite that gained the most, and it stirred fierce resentment among those left behind. After the economy crashed in 1929, the US Congress passed the sweeping Smoot-Hawley tariff act. Trade, which was 30% of the world’s economy, slowed to less than 10% in 1933. Immigration in the US declined from more than a million annually to a few tens of thousands. Similar reactions took place in other countries.

"However, many economists feel that these reactions prolonged the depression and economic stagnation and led to the rise of nationalism and totalitarian regimes. Global trade did not fully recover until the 1970s and capital mobility did not recover until the 1990s. Today, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, globalisation is on the retreat again, with increased calls for restrictions to mobility and trade, and a rise in nationalism.

"There is considerable debate about the way forward for the UK after Brexit. A chief reason for Brexit was the feeling of many that they did not share in the economic prosperity of globalisation and membership of the EU. Rather, they faced stagnating wages and increased pressure on resources, infrastructure and costs. Virtually all economists from both the left and right agree that addressing those concerns by retreating into protectionism would simply repeat the mistakes of the past and cause all of us to be worse off.

"Fortunately, the UK continues to believe in free trade. However, if we have free trade and also restrict mobility, and at the same time want to ensure people a decent minimum wage and standard of living, we will not be able to compete purely based on traditional industry. The older industries, both in the UK and the US were based on proximity to raw materials and what at the time was world- leading innovative technology. Many of these industries are not particularly competitive today in a global economy. It is doubtful that steel mills and coal will return on a large scale to either Pennsylvania or the North of England. Even if they were to do so, automation and other efficiencies will ensure that they  will not create the large number of well-paying jobs that they did in the past. Globalisation is sometimes a proxy for the disruption caused by technology, which can stimulate economic growth while rewarding fewer and fewer members of society.

"Sometimes, it is possible for cities to reverse decline by investing in completely new areas. For example, Pittsburgh, previously in decline due to the loss of its steel industry, is now rejuvenating itself thanks to investment in new technologies, facilitated by having two top universities, including Carnegie- Mellon, a world leader in computer science and robotics. It is currently working with Uber to test driverless cars on its streets.

"Economic growth will thus depend on science and innovation, but left to itself, such new growth will be unevenly distributed. In the US, much of the innovation and the resulting economic growth has occurred in the North-East Washington- Boston corridor or on the West Coast. This has left the vast hinterland of the US behind, so the result of the US election is not surprising in hindsight. In the UK, much of the new economy is concentrated in areas like London and Cambridge. Newer, knowledge-based industry relies on easy and rapid acquisition of information to have a competitive advantage. In a laissez-faire environment, the growth of these clusters will continue at the expense of other areas, and is a natural consequence of economics.

"A key aspect of this is the so-called “agglomeration effect”. Small and large companies want to be in an environment where there is complementary expertise and industry all around them. There is a reason that AstraZeneca moved its research headquarters from the North of England. The three places on their short list were the Bay Area and Boston in the USA, and Cambridge. Fortunately for the UK, they chose Cambridge. The move to Cambridge would not make sense on the basis of cost alone: housing costs for their employees, as well as running costs, would be much higher in Cambridge. However, the life sciences cluster in Cambridge meant they would be plugged into first-rate research and innovation, be able to recruit skilled employees and benefit from a “first mover’s advantage”. A similar effect has led to the growth of cities all over the world and indeed many of the clusters I have mentioned are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

"Given the geographical inequalities it generates, a laissez-faire approach to future growth is not sustainable politically. How then should a strategy ensure that different parts of the country are not left behind? I believe it would be a mistake to try to artificially prop up designated parts of the country with targeted investments that may simply favour existing areas of industry that are in decline.

"In general, it is not easy to predict how to reverse decline in any given geographical area, as Pittsburgh in the US or Manchester in the UK are doing. This however does not mean we should do nothing, and the new industrial strategy to be launched by the Government presents an opportunity to take positive steps in this direction.

"We in the Royal Society, along with the other academies, have pointed out that science and innovation must be an essential component of such a strategy for the reasons I have just mentioned. The recent announcement by the Government of significantly increased spending for research is a sign that our arguments have been found convincing. It will also send a strong message that post-Brexit, the UK is determined to continue to be a leader in science and innovation.

"The announcement of increased spending in infrastructure is also welcome. Clearly, careful thought will have to be paid to nurturing potential areas where the UK has particular strengths.  Hermann Hauser has pointed out to me that during the early stages of the formation of a new industrial sector, the “first mover” advantage can be decisive on whether a nation becomes a viable player in the new sector or not. Examples of such new sectors are quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and synthetic biology. They are all areas in which the UK has strengths, and pump-priming in the form of targeted investment in a new sector, sometimes of a substantial nature, is needed if the UK wants to have a place at the global table, since other countries are doing exactly that. Rather than picking winning companies, competition can be preserved by support for a range of companies either through competitive project support (eg the autonomous vehicle competition called CCAV2 by Innovate UK), or competitive procurement from the MOD or NHS.

"For the benefits of economic growth to be widely dispersed geographically rather than concentrated in a few dense clusters, infrastructure investment should aim to reduce the isolation and improve the connectivity of the entire country. High speed connectivity – both virtual through the internet and real through transport – will ensure that places that are currently left behind will quickly connect up with the highest growth areas nearby. The UK has large centres that are, or could be, the nucleus for future growth. For example, the Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds area could be a hub which if appropriately connected with each other and surrounding areas, could be an engine of growth not only for themselves but also for areas further out such as Grimsby and Hull. Similarly, large parts of East Anglia could be connected to Norwich and further linked to Cambridge. High-speed links – both physical and virtual – will ensure that their residents will be able to live where they are and yet be able to work where the jobs are being created. More importantly, increased connectivity will allow local industries to develop since they will no longer be isolated and be part of an expanding cluster of growth.

"Growth requires the availability of large pools of skilled workers. Given the debate over immigration, it is essential to create a sufficiently large local population of skilled workers. Creating this will require a large and sustained investment in education. All governments have paid lip service to education, but education for the future will need to be flexible and broad-based to prepare people for the rapidly changing and often disruptive economies of the future. The Royal Society has previously advocated a broad-based curriculum and science and mathematics education throughout secondary school to prepare future generations for a knowledge-based economy.

"Creating a sufficiently large local pool of skilled workers will take considerable time. However, regardless of availability of local talent, science is always a global enterprise and depends on a free flow of people, who bring in new ideas and expertise. Our own young scientists also benefit enormously by going abroad  for training, so migration works both ways. Many of our top native-born scientists have studied or done research abroad.

"Indeed, a major reason for the success of UK science and technology is that it has been open and welcoming to the best talent from around the world. Five of the last 15 UK Nobel Laureates were foreign born. In fact, three of the last five Presidents of the Royal Society were born abroad, and a sixth was the son of immigrants.
Today, 30% of our academic research staff are from abroad and a third of UK start-ups were founded by non-UK nationals.  We are second only to the US as a destination for global talent. Their presence ensures that we remain first-rate, and importantly, produces a first-rate environment for training home-grown talent. Losing them would be a disaster for our economy. We need to take immediate steps to reassure those who are here that they remain welcome. Currently an EU citizen working here has to fill out a 90-page form with lots of onerous and unnecessary reporting to gain the right to remain. In the future, rather than making things worse by having EU citizens go through the same mass of red tape that others currently do to gain the right to work here, we need to improve the situation for everyone by streamlining procedures so they are fair, transparent and efficient.

"Immigration is a very political issue but the most strident voices may not always accurately reflect public opinion. It is worth remembering that immigration was only the second most important reason why people voted for Brexit, and even so, it was control over migration that people wanted not the complete absence of it. A majority of the British, including leading Brexiteers, are not against movement of highly skilled labour into the country. In the aftermath of the referendum a poll showed that 84% of people want EU citizens currently in the UK to be able to stay and only 12% want to cut the number of highly skilled workers migrating to Britain. Thus, the recent rhetoric around migration has been both unhelpful and unnecessary and the Government needs to send a strong message to counter it. Reducing the barriers to mobility will enhance our competitiveness and send a strong message that the UK will always welcome talent from around the world.

"Over the years, we have built up strong networks with other EU countries. These networks greatly expand the influence of our science and indeed the UK as a whole. It allows UK scientists to have a say in the planning and operation of large multinational facilities and in the future directions of science in Europe. Most of  us in the Fellowship are strongly in favour of continued links through participation in programmes such as Horizon 2020 (including the ERC). My hope is that such an arrangement is politically possible, and in any case it is important that science have a strong voice in the negotiations to facilitate a favourable outcome for science.

"Finally, counting students as part of migration figures is both unreasonable and a poor strategy. Only a small fraction of them stay on (mostly to our benefit) and they can be counted at that time. The rest return to their home countries and are valuable links with the UK. They become future leaders and are more likely to look at the UK as natural partners for trade and investment. By putting up unnecessary barriers to students and restricting opportunities for them, we are in danger of turning away entire generations of future partners who would be well disposed towards us.

"As you have already heard from Julie Maxton, the Royal Society has been very active in the aftermath of Brexit. Very early on, thanks to Julie and her staff, the Royal Society organised a working group to study the various consequences of Brexit for science and appropriate responses to them. Many of us, including
me, have met with senior government officials and ministers to make clear what we in the science community felt was in the best interests of both science and the country. The decisions by the Government to underwrite UK applicants to EU programmes in the transition period, as well as the decision to increase investment in science, are both outcomes we actively argued for.

"On the issue of mobility, there are some encouraging signs, but we need to continue to make the case for the ability to recruit talent at both the student and senior levels. I also believe the Government should seize the moral high ground by allowing EU citizens settled here to stay and reassuring them that they are welcome, which would reduce the risk of the flight of talent already in the UK.

"A separate strand of Brexit is its effect on regulations. The UK has benefited from a common regulatory policy within the EU, which is useful for collaborations across the continent, eg involving animal research, genetics, etc. However, the UK has excelled in enlightened regulatory policy for new technologies that takes into account a proper consideration of both risks and benefits. For example, long before it was acceptable in most countries, the UK pioneered IVF babies. Recently we have the example of the so-called “three-parent” baby for eliminating mitochondrial defects. We were also more rational about stem cells, resulting in leading scientists coming to work here from the USA. We are currently more forward-looking about areas like genome editing.

"The UK potentially has great advantages in new areas where regulations, ethics, liability and technology intersect. Some examples are the use of large sets of personal data to drive discovery and innovation in health. In the NHS we have a single payer health care system with a very large patient data base. Proper regulations could also help other areas such as driverless vehicles and robotics. The UK’s experience in setting standards will also help to define new technologies and give us a competitive advantage. The Society is currently looking at three related areas which all have regulatory implications, namely cybersecurity, machine learning and data governance. On the last, the Society is working with the British Academy to make proposals for a governance framework that will help ensure the UK is able to lead in the science and applications of data.

"While Brexit is one of the largest changes in the national scene and has important implications for science, there are other issues. Chief among these is the decision by the Government to create the UKRI body in response to the Nurse review. Although there are differing opinions among the Fellowship, my view – a matter of public record – is that it offers an opportunity for science to speak with a strong unified voice, which is more not less important in these uncertain times. It also is an opportunity to lower barriers to interdisciplinary work and to be able to respond to new initiatives quickly. At the same time, I recognise the dangers inherent in any reorganisation, not least the possible disruption it may cause. So it is important for appropriate safeguards to be built into the new structure to minimise these risks, including affecting the autonomy and smooth functioning of the individual research councils.

"A large commitment by the Government to science and technology is a trust placed in our community that we must justify. It also means that we must look carefully at the institutions of science. Issues such as reproducibility, fraud, the current process of peer review and publication, all tend to erode that trust unless we take active steps to tackle them head on.

"Such trust is crucially important to maintain. The OED declared “post-truth” to be the word of the year for 2016. With large amounts of misinformation now widely propagated, it becomes more important to distinguish empirical evidence and the quest for truth that characterises science despite its inherent uncertainties, from spurious claims that gain credence simply by repetition.

"The trust placed in us also requires us to ensure that hard-earned taxpayers’ money is used efficiently and for the good of the country – in the broadest sense, including creating fundamental knowledge.

"These are all matters in which the Society will play an active role in the years to come.

"We are going through a turbulent period politically and even culturally. But it is important to remember that the UK has been at the forefront of science for several centuries. With the right attitude and decisions, we will continue to excel and attract some of the best talent globally.

"I want to conclude by saying that my first year has been far more challenging  and interesting than I had expected, to put it mildly. My work would have been impossible without the support of a dedicated staff here, led by Julie Maxton, our Executive Director, and the very collegial, helpful and friendly group of my fellow Officers, who are models of how to disagree without being disagreeable. Many individual Fellows have also been a source of encouragement and support ever since I took office. I thank all of them and barring unforeseen circumstances such as death, disability or impeachment, I look forward to continuing to serve you in the years to come."