Anniversary Day Address 2019 from Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society

29 November 2019

I am delighted to offer my congratulations to our Fellows or Foreign Members Peter Ratcliffe, James Peebles and John B Goodenough, who were awarded Nobel Prizes this year.  In addition, Didier Queloz, who shared the physics prize, was a recipient of a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.  And we should not forget that Stanley Whittingham, who shared the chemistry prize, was born and educated in the UK before going to the US to continue his research.

These successes are a testament to the benefits of the international nature of UK research. They represent outstanding home grown talent, including those who stayed here to pursue their research and those who went abroad, as well as outstanding researchers from other parts of the world who were drawn to the UK.  That free flow of people and ideas has allowed the UK to thrive when investment in science has not always flowed as freely as in other countries.

The traditional openness of British science has been called into question over the last three years, and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has led to many questions about the future of UK science and innovation. We now stand at a crossroads and the decisions we make in the coming months and years will likely set the course for our future. If we get it wrong the damage could cripple the UK for at least a generation.

Europe was the home of the Enlightenment and the birth place of modern science but it went into decline in the 20th century as a result of two internecine world wars. By the time I had to make a decision in 1971 of where to go from India for further studies, the centre of gravity of science and innovation had shifted to the US, which had become the default destination for the world; I did not even consider Europe.  However, the recent decades of close cooperation in Europe reversed that earlier period of relative decline against the USA and has made Europe a global scientific powerhouse again.

During those decades of resurgence, the UK has been at the heart of European science.  Our engagement in the Horizon programmes and more broadly with European research has seen both us and the rest of Europe benefit from the growing strength of our collaborations.  It has seen us benefit from the free flow of researchers to and from our European partners and it has seen us benefit financially.  We have also been strong advocates of the use of rational, evidence-based science policy in EU-wide decision making, again to the benefit of all. The continuation of that close relationship is essential and is mutually beneficial because the strength of science is crucial to everyone’s long-term prosperity.  

So, even in 2016, we instinctively feared that Brexit would damage UK science, but we now have hard evidence that Brexit and its associated uncertainty have had deleterious effects.  Just recently we published an analysis that shows:

  • The UK’s annual share of EU research funding has fallen by half a billion Euros since 2015 
  • The number of researchers looking to come to the UK via EU programmes has dropped by a third

Tellingly, there is no change in our traditionally high success rates. Rather the latter figure shows that there is a dramatic drop in the number of leading researchers who want to come to the UK. This could be because people do not want to gamble with their careers in an uncertain environment for participants of EU programs based in the UK, or more generally the future prospects for UK science, or because they feel that the UK is no longer a welcoming place for them and their families. Clearly we have a serious problem, both to repair the reputational damage that has been done to the UK and to find concrete ways to tackle the future.

Just six months into my presidency, I was preparing a speech for an event in parliament. On 23 June 2016 everything changed.  The next day I knew I had to write a new speech.  Fortunately the Society had done a lot of work on laying out the details of the UK’s scientific relationship with the EU.  During the referendum campaign we had produced three reports; one on EU funding of science in the UK; one on the impact of freedom of movement; and one on the impact of regulation.  In my speech I was able to highlight the importance of association to EU funding schemes and how important it was for us to maintain the freest possible flow of people and ideas.

In the three and a half years since, the Society and I personally have taken every opportunity to make the case for an outcome that keeps scientists working in the UK and ensures international talent continues to come here; keeps access to money and networks that support international collaboration; and maintains regulatory alignment that makes research smoother and allows access to new medicines and technologies.

During that time, I have seen three Prime Ministers and as many relevant ministers come and go. Nevertheless, throughout the turmoil, it has been encouraging that there is a real recognition of just how important science and innovation are to our future.  There is also strong recognition of the value of cooperation and collaboration. In her first major speech on the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May set out 12 priority objectives, one of which was for a Global Britain to be the best place for science and innovation.  Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator for Brexit, reportedly vetted a July 2017 report on the future of EU research, chaired by former director-general of the World Trade Organization and EU Commissioner Pascal Lamy, that recommended “full and continued engagement with the UK.”

That seems a long time ago but it is fair to say that those sentiments have continued to be widely expressed.  The problem has been that all the attention has been focussed on areas of disagreement, rather than on areas of agreement, allowing ideologues to dominate debate. They have chosen to sow discord and pursue their own narrow interest rather than the common good, and have left many people disillusioned and disengaged.

We are now in the middle of an election campaign and a few weeks ago the Society launched its own manifesto for science. It focusses on how to develop and attract talent, secure investment and use our capability to meet future challenges.

To prevent sustained damage from Brexit to UK science, we must keep highly skilled scientists working in the UK and ensure that talented people still choose to come here. We must keep access to the money and networks that have benefited both us and the rest of the EU so much, and we must maintain the regulatory alignment that facilitates essential collaborations as well as access to new medicines and technologies.

It is hard to tell how the wider immigration debate will play out.  The Conservatives have singled out scientists as a special case with Boris Johnson announcing a fast track visa route to attract ‘the very best minds from around the world’.  The Liberal Democrats position would keep the status quo for EU researchers and Labour have made the general commitment to an immigration system that allows us to ‘recruit the people we need, and to welcome them and their families’.

What we really need is a system where any researcher who is given an academic appointment or a position supported by a major public, charity or industry funded research programme; or who is offered a long-term post in a UK university or research institute should be automatically guaranteed entry for themselves and their families. It should also confer guaranteed entry to essential members of a researcher’s wider team – including researchers at all career levels, research assistants, technologists and technicians. Any system must also be simple and affordable. This requires a substantial change in both practice and attitude, as anyone who has had to deal with the immigration system knows. It is overly bureaucratic to the point of appearing hostile, and prohibitively expensive compared to other leading scientific nations. The upfront cost of a visa for a researcher to come and work in the UK is over £8,000, which compares to an average £1,500 for other leading scientific nations. The UK costs go up to £12,000 if the researcher wants to bring a partner and higher again if they have children.  Any new system must also meet the needs of researchers whether they are coming to live and work or for a shorter term visit.

On access to money and networks, for the Lib Dems, revoking Article 50 offers a simple solution.  Labour have promised continued participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as the environment, scientific research and culture. Among the Conservatives, the Science Minister Chris Skidmore has said that association to Horizon Europe was ‘not only necessary, but essential’.  Although these are welcome positions, at the moment all we have are words and we will continue to focus on this issue. All of the parties seem to recognise how important this is but it will of course not simply be for us in the UK to decide – The EU will have to want the UK to associate and there will be a question over the terms and conditions of association.

Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, we must think about long-term investment in the future of UK research and development. Science has always underpinned our health and prosperity.  The UK has made amazing discoveries that have transformed our world. The steam engine ushered in the industrial revolution, just as the discovery of penicillin ushered in the era of modern antibiotics. The structure of DNA and later the invention of methods to sequence it ushered in the modern era of genomics and much of molecular biology. The invention of radio astronomy gave us a new way of observing the universe. However, maintaining such excellence and being at the forefront of science and innovation in a highly competitive world will require sustained and substantial investment.

It was not long ago when the science community was happy to secure a flat cash plus inflation settlement in the spending review. But at this crucial point in our history, we have to recognise that for too long we have under-invested in science. At the moment, we invest 1.67% of GDP of which the public sector share is 0.43%. By comparison, South Korea is already investing over 4.5% of GDP, in Germany it is over 3% and in the US it is just under 2.8%.  Clearly, it now appears that all three major parties have realized the importance of increased investment in science. Labour have committed to 3% of GDP by 2030, and the Liberal Democrats are also committed to the 3% of GDP figure with a milestone of 2.4% by 2027. For the Conservatives, the Prime Minister has said they will double public investment from £9 Billion to £18 Billion over the next five years, although the Conservative manifesto appears vague on this point. If such promises are delivered we will have the resources to match our excellence.

One reason that there appears to be unanimity on support for science is that we take it as a tenet that investment in science and research leads to economic prosperity. It is a well-recognized problem that although there is much ingenuity in the UK leading to conceptual breakthroughs, too often, most of their economic benefits accrue elsewhere, especially in the United States.  Alan Turing was one of the fathers of modern computing, but with the exception of ARM, large multi-billion dollar companies such as IBM, Apple and Google are located elsewhere. Innovative companies started in the UK, whether related to DNA sequencing, machine learning, or antibody therapeutics, feel no choice but to sell out at a relatively early stage, leading other countries to capture as much as 90% of the growth in these technologies. This “scale-up” problem, first brought to my attention by Sherry Coutu and then through the work of the Prime Minister’s Council of Science and Technology, is highly complex and requires addressing many different factors. Capital markets need to have both the expertise and patience among investors to support scale-up of innovative companies. We need to have access to a sufficiently large pool of skilled workers in the UK to allow companies to expand. We also need enough qualified high-level managers with experience and knowledge of how to drive the growth of a small-medium sized company to a large one. Finally, regulations and access to large markets must not be a barrier to growth.  I believe that at this crucial moment in the UK, any government would be well advised to give this problem serious attention in order to maximize the economic return on its investment in science.

The need for a large, highly skilled and adaptable population to fuel growth in the future brings me to a topic close to my own heart – education.  Our educational system has served us in the past by producing a small elite cadre of outstanding scientists and experts in various fields, but with a large disparity in the average level of understanding of scientific issues among society at large. People thus have to implicitly trust scientists and other experts.  As society becomes increasingly technological and decisions are made on highly technical grounds that have a major impact on everyone’s lives, it is important to have a population that is scientifically literate. However, the historical context and social relevance of public policies can only be understood with a thorough grounding in the humanities.

Our educational system is one of the narrowest in the world, and forces young people to abandon most subjects when they are 16.  This is at a time when the nature of work is changing and young people need a broader range of skills and knowledge to prepare them for the jobs of the future. We are facing a new wave of rapid change driven by technologies such as artificial intelligence. Some jobs will change, some will be lost altogether and there will be many new jobs in industries that don’t even exist yet. Careers are becoming more flexible and we need to change expectations of what a person’s ‘career’, or more likely ‘careers’, will look like. Businesses need employees with a broad range of skills and experience that can help them to creatively adapt to a rapidly changing and technology-rich world.

In the current system, there are pockets of young people who are getting the broader education that will set them up for the best jobs in the future. While the average young person studies 2.7 A-level subjects, you are more likely to study three or more subjects if you come from a well-off family. You are more than twice as likely to be studying four or more subjects if you are ineligible for free school meals.  You are more than three times as likely to be studying four or more subjects if you are at a private or Grammar school, and you are more than twice as likely if you live in the South East as opposed to the North East. Sadly, this is all too predictable. Pockets of success for the wealthy elite are not a recipe for a harmonious and prosperous society.

Our manifesto calls for a major review of education to ensure every young person has the opportunity to study the widest range of subjects and qualifications to 18, including science, maths and computing, so that they have the skills they will need to compete for the good jobs of the future. Their education needs to be broad to provide them the resilience to adapt to disruptions to entire industries. We also need to address the serious shortfall in the supply of specialist teachers, especially in science, maths and computing.

Turning now to major problems that science can help tackle, we have come a long way in public acceptance of the threat of climate change.  The question is no longer whether we should do something but what we should do and how quickly.  The UK’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is progressive and welcome, and we need to make serious efforts to solve the practical problems this entails.

The next government will have to focus on behavioural change to conserve energy and reduce emissions, including improved proved insulation and more energy-efficient ways of heating homes and businesses, more sustainable consumption of food, and better uses of land including the planting of trees. But we will also have to invest in new technologies. In power, we need further development of renewables; large scale and long term energy storage and smart systems; carbon capture and storage; and research into the potential use of captured carbon.  In transport we need better batteries and new fuel sources for sectors like aviation and shipping.  We will also need to develop infrastructure to be better prepared for increasing extreme weather events. Clearly, this will require a major, multi-pronged attack that will combine many areas of the natural and social sciences as well as engineering.

The last areas we address in our manifesto are emerging technologies and data. Technologies such as machine learning and AI have the power to change lives for the better. They can create systems that help doctors give more accurate or effective diagnoses. They can help make existing transport networks more efficient, as well as the development of autonomous vehicles. Using machine learning, Google Deepmind reduced energy usage for operating Google’s data centres by 40%. For public services, AI has the potential to tailor services, including supporting those in need more effectively. And in science, making sense of the vast amount of data available will help offer new insights into biology, physics, medicine and the social sciences. At the same time, these technologies should not be used to benefit a small number of already rich and advantaged people. Our manifesto also calls on government to ensure that access to data is permitted in a way that is supported and trusted by the public.

I came to Britain relatively late in life, and when I was approached about the possibility of becoming your president, I was focused entirely on my own research. Despite the great honour, it is not clear that I would have felt confident enough to take the position had I known the political and social turmoil that would prevail in the country for almost my entire term. Nevertheless, with the help of a dedicated staff led by our executive director, Julie Maxton, my collegial and highly committed officers and an engaged fellowship, we have together managed to convey in these difficult times the importance of science, both for Brexit and beyond. I am happy to say that our voice appears to have been heard. Political parties are falling over themselves to champion science and crucially, to back that up with promises of investment. There are few if any other sectors where politicians are promising to increase public investment by 100%.  And although we in the Royal Society have certainly played an important part, the whole science community deserves credit in achieving this state of affairs.

I will now enter my last year as your president. Over the course of the next year I will do my best to maintain pressure for the best possible outcome for the UK in the current negotiations around Brexit.  At the same time, we at the Royal Society must take a longer view about the future of science. We must never short-change basic science, which not only advances our knowledge of the world around us and generates excitement throughout society, especially in young people, but also enables the new, transformative technologies of the future. Looking ahead, advances in mathematics, computer science and material science will be essential to drive the green technologies and use of data and AI that will underpin the next industrial revolution. Such advances will not only provide jobs and wealth for the countries that lead the way in those technologies but could lead to improvements in the quality of life globally. 

Britain was traditionally famous for its ingenuity and drive and the 360 years since the Royal Society was founded have been filled with great successes. However, the current turmoil in the country has led to deep divisions in our society and a sense of malaise. We should realize that we are at a crossroads and not let Brexit and its aftermath dishearten us or destroy our ambitions. Rather, we must create the conditions and opportunities for our scientific enterprise to flourish and meet the challenges of the future with the ambition they require.