Good afternoon. I would like to start by offering my congratulations to our medal and awards winners and to welcome so many of you here today, and those of you watching online. I would also like to congratulate all of our Fellows and Foreign Members who received other awards this year.
Setting the scene
Last year, in setting out the Society’s five-year strategy I outlined what I saw as the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.
The astonishing contribution of the research community has dampened the worst immediate health impacts of the pandemic but the long-term impacts on some individuals, on the health service and on the economy continue to cast a long shadow. War continues to rage in the Ukraine and as the recent COP meeting has shown there is huge progress still to be made on tackling climate change. Then we have rampant biodiversity loss and the threat of future pandemics. We are living in difficult and even dangerous times.
Against this backdrop it is very welcome that the Government has again reinforced its support for research and innovation. In the recent Autumn Statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer reaffirmed the commitment to increasing the science budget to £20 billion by 2024/25. That is a very significant increase from the £14.8 billion budgeted for 2021/22.
Even allowing for the inclusion of roughly £2 billion a year for Association to Horizon Europe – more on that later – and rampant inflation, it is good news amid much financial gloom. It signals that the Government recognise the crucial role our community and the work we do in businesses, universities and research institutes across the UK in driving productivity and growth and improving lives.
Science as a guiding light
This matters because research and innovation are our guiding light in dangerous times. Science helps us understand the risks. It helps us to mitigate those risk. It helps us tackle the fallout.
For decades the scientific evidence has been building on climate change and its impacts – to the extent that the scale of the problem and the need for action are now widely recognised.
Scientists and engineers have developed the new technologies, such as renewable energy sources that are allowing us to pivot away from fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy and they continue to develop new and better ways to effect that change. Of course, we can only mitigate the risks so far and the science will also be key in helping us to adapt to the changes that are already happening.
On climate change, progress has been slow but recent years have seen the need for scientists to turn their skills to more acute problems and to engage even more directly with policy makers.
The value of science in those situations has been crystal clear in the pandemic. From the gathering and interpretation of data, to the rapid sequencing of the COVID-19 genome and its subsequent variants. And from the delivery of treatments to the development of the vaccines. All of this was made possible through decades of funding for basic science.
The pandemic saw an astonishingly rapid response that was decades in the making.
Science driving prosperity
As well as being a guiding light in dangerous times, science is also the engine of economic growth. The benefits of long-term investment in research are all around us. As well as vaccines, technology also allowed much activity to continue during the pandemic that would not have been possible in the past. There have been sustained improvements in health with an 80% fall in premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in the last 40 years. The internet and smartphones have brought communications and education to hard-to-reach areas and I could go on…
With the benefit of hindsight we can look back and identify key pieces of research that contributed to these developments but it would have been impossible to look forward from funding decisions taken at the time and map out the specific impacts they would have.
That is why we need to ensure that discovery science is well funded because if we do not fund it, then we are failing to fund the solutions to future crises.
Those future crises could take the shape of global challenges or could be unique to the UK. People will not want to hear it right now but we do have to prepare for the next pandemic. The number one risk on the Government’s risk register in 2019 was a pandemic.
Tackling the inter-related threats of climate change and biodiversity loss and meeting global energy needs will also require significant long-term investment. Businesses are now taking forward a lot of the technologies that we will need but we need public investment to leverage that and support the ground-breaking ideas that are not yet ready to be commercialised. The UK has great strengths in these research areas and we need to nurture that.
And what of the more UK specific dangers. One of my predecessors as President, Martin Rees once very astutely pointed out that if we do not get smarter, we will get poorer.
The UK is not blessed with huge natural resources and we cannot compete with economies with a low cost base. But we do have one exceptional competitive advantage – our science base.
The country that gains a competitive edge in AI; Quantum computing; carbon capture and storage; and renewable energy sources and storage will not only benefit domestically but it will be able to export the knowledge or the product to global markets.
Back in 2020 the Society published a briefing on Research and Innovation Clusters which made the case for mutually reinforcing clusters in particular places. These clusters have a flow of people and ideas between the public and private sectors.
Our universities and research institutes can be at the heart of these clusters, as many already are. I look forward to seeing the new approach to investment zones that the Chancellor has announced will be based on our research strengths. The levelling up secretary might want to look at our ‘clusters’ briefing and one we produced on absorptive capacity earlier this year ahead of decisions to be announced in the spring.
Recent governments have recognised the enormous potential of research and innovation and have all had variations on the theme of supporting outstanding science. They have even backed that up with increased investment – even in the current difficult financial situation the Chancellor has confirmed the Government’s commitment to increasing the science budget.
Politicians now recognise and are acting on the fact that research is central to innovation and innovation is central to productivity and growth. Investment in science and technology will tackle longstanding low productivity through the creation of new knowledge, ideas and processes. It will also help deliver better health outcomes, a successful business investment environment and more jobs.
The UK has a pretty good track record - although too many of our ideas have been commercialised elsewhere – but we are in a far more competitive world now, when it comes to scientific leadership. A lot of countries are investing a larger share of their GDP in research than the UK and the top talent is very geographically mobile.
Improving UK science
So what can we do to improve the UK’s offering? Each of these areas could sustain a full speech but I will keep myself to a few observations:
- First, a more long-term approach to planning and investment with better funding models and more movement between industry and academia
In terms of funding – it is often short-term and so people spend a significant proportion of their time looking for their next grant. And taking a long-term approach is not helped by the short-term nature of the political cycle.
- Attracting foreign investment
This is an area where we are pretty good – we get a higher percentage of our research investment from overseas than any other G7 nation – over 14% compared to the US, France and Germany where the figure is around 7-8%. That investment suggests that we have the people and ideas but we cannot afford to take that for granted, or worse, allow those strengths to wither. Overseas investment comes to the UK because we are ahead of the game in some areas of research, not because we are in the pack. And that investment is very mobile.
- Support for basic and applied science
The UK has not always been great at translation of basic science into businesses that can grow but we cannot afford to cut off the supply of knowledge in the pursuit of its application. We need to support both or we will have neither.
- We must ensure that the equipment and buildings that facilitate great science are in place
It goes without saying that it is hard to do the best science if you do not have the best facilities and equipment.
- And vitally, attracting, training and retaining the best talent
We know that the UK science base has always thrived on a mix of home-grown talent and attracting outstanding people from overseas. I will talk a little more about the international nature of science and the education system in a moment but we have got to get this mix right. Too many signals have been sent in recent years that give the impression of the UK not being ‘open for business’.
UK science has long been built on that great mix of home grown and overseas talent but that will not be enough in the future. If we want the UK to thrive, it is not enough to have an education system that trains the scientists of the future, we have to develop people in all walks of life with the mathematical and scientific skills to be able to bring innovation into the workplace.
And in a fast-changing world, where data is increasingly important, we will all need greater mathematical and scientific skills to be good citizens.
Education needs to be about developing skills. Science education is not just about learning the third law of thermodynamics, it is about problem solving, team working, analysing evidence and the ability to learn from mistakes.
A-levels and Scottish Highers have served us well in the past and perhaps the Society has been complacent about them – as long as the UK continued to produce outstanding scientists there has been a temptation to think everything was fine.
But we need change. We need a baccalaureate style system with science and maths continuing to be studied to 18 and a greater focus on vocational training.
A-levels are no longer fit for purpose.
Scottish Highers offer a bit more breadth but it is still not enough.
The Prime Minister has indicated that this is an area he wants to tackle. It has been reported that he is planning far reaching changes including a new baccalaureate system for England and a network of elite technical institutes to transform vocational training.
This would be a radical reform of a core pillar of public service but for too long we have been afraid of radical reform.
It feels like the moment may be right for change and we need to bring together cross-party support along with teachers and parents to drive this forward.
I recognise this will not happen overnight – challenges will include the need to recruit more specialist science teachers and we will need to support them with subject specific, continuing professional development.
A core aspect of reform of the education system will be ensuring that it provides an outstanding experience for everyone, regardless of who they are or where they are from. I have spoken before about the need for greater diversity in science, because without it we will be missing out on talent and we cannot afford that.
The international nature of science
So, reform of our educational system is vital in developing the home grown talent we need to continue to be a global leader in science and to apply the knowledge and ideas that we develop into driving productivity and economic growth.
But as I said earlier the success of UK science has been built on a mix of home grown and overseas talent. And I now want to turn to the overseas talent part of the equation.
The government has done a lot to ensure that we have a visa system that allows outstanding talent to come to the UK and the Global Talent Visa is good offering but one of the main principles of a visa system that will be effective in attracting high quality applicants will be cost and on that measure the Global Talent Visa still fails.
The GTV is the most expensive visa compared to other leading science nations.
When combined with the factors that have made the UK look less outward looking in recent years, things like visa costs can put people off – particularly with a highly mobile and sought after group of people.
We need to attract overseas talent but we also need to collaborate with researchers from other countries. Science tends to come together across borders. You might remember the PCR test that became integral to our lives in the pandemic. That was the result of work in the UK on the structure of DNA and work in the US on the discovery of high temperature nucleic acid polymerase.
Collaboration makes for better science and that improves lives. A point that is widely accepted, including by politicians in the UK and in the EU.
So why, nearly two years after it was agreed, has the UK’s association to Horizon Europe not been delivered?
This delay is harming science across Europe and there is a danger that damage could become irreparable. It is time for politicians to put aside the politics and put the interests of their citizens first.
It is time to get association done.
I started on a somewhat bleak note, outlining the headwinds that continue to threaten progress both nationally and internationally but science is about looking forward and driving progress. At home there are positive signs –
Association to Horizon Europe can be secured…
The Government can continue to deliver on its promise to increase science funding…
And the Prime Minister can bring all parties and stakeholders together to tackle the much-needed reform of the education system.
Internationally, researchers continue to tackle the big challenges; how do we feed an ever-growing population; how do we mitigate and adapt to climate change and the threat to biodiversity; how do we prepare for the next pandemic; how do we improve the care of the sick and help to prevent people from getting ill in the first place. And of course the quest for knowledge that we might not know just how useful it will be for years or even decades.
It is easy to be despondent in difficult times but science does shine a light. It helps us understand the risks and do something about them. Science cannot cure all our ills but it does improve lives in so many ways and of that the science community should be very proud.