Science in Crisis

Article excerpt

Scientists working in universities and industry fear that by the year 2000 Britain will be relegated to third division status in the world science league, with disastrous consequences for British industry and, of course, the economy. Their remedy to stop the rot is simple: more government money. Industrialists differ. They believe that money alone is not the answer.

Scientists think industry is culpable, too. They say that, in addition to inadequate government funding, companies do not support pure and applied science sufficiently, so that both academic and industrial scientific research is starved. A look abroad supports their apprehensions.

Government funding for R&D in 1990/1991 was pound 4.96 billion, of which only pound 1.69 billion was earmarked for university science research. Government R&D expenditure currently amounts to 0.9% of GDP, compared with 1.04% in Germany, 1-42% in France and 1.18% in the US. As these countries have a higher GDP than the UK and, except for the US, allocate most of their government-funded R&D to civil research, the British Government clearly spends far less on academic science in real terms than any of its major competitors.

In 1991 British companies spent a total of pound 5.39 billion on R&D, a meagre sum compared with countries such as Germany where, in 1990, just five companies Siemens, Daimler Benz, Hoechst, Bayer.and Volkswagen - spent a combined pound 8.5 billion. When the Independent ranked the world's companies by their R&D spend in June 1992 only one British company, ICI, reached the top 40.

Sir Hans Kornberg, professor of biochemistry and Master of Christ's College, Cambridge, uses other criteria to demonstrate the UK's decline: "If you measure our standing by the number of times that British scientific papers are quoted, or by the patents that have accrued, or the Nobel prizes that we have won, then all these indicators show that we are no longer as pre-eminent as we were."

Sir David Smith, Edinburgh University's vice chancellor, claims that the electronic scientific equipment used in foreign laboratories is superior to the UK's. Roger Cashmore, professor of physics at Oxford, notes that the number of exchange v[sits between British and foreign universities is falling. Igor Aleksander, a former manager at telecommunications company STC and now professor of electrical engineering at Imperial College, London, laments the apathy of industry. Twenty years ago, he says, 'most British industrial companies had their own development laboratories, often doing pretty fundamental research'. Today there were no more than 30 such laboratories in the electronics and engineering industry.

On the academic front, university scientists believe more cash is essential if they are to pursue advanced researcb on a par with their international competitors. The Save British Science campaign is demanding an extra pound 400 million a year for university science research (on top of the current grant of pound 1.69 billion). In industry, scientists and research directors are asking for tax incentives and grants in order to pursue 'nationally important' research and development work. ln April, for example, GEC-Marconi and Dowty told the House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee that more government financial support for R&D was essential if Britain's ,aerospace industry was to survive.

The forthcoming White Paper on science and technology indicates that the Government has begun to listen to these anguished cries for help from academic and industrial scientists. William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for science, was inundated with advice. This included 800 pieces of written evidence, lie emerged from this pile to take up the argument that university science research funding must be increased because of the potential commercial benefits. Waldegrave wants to fund more university/industrial research programmes. …