The Vision Thing: Science Could Drive Growth in Britain, but It Needs More Support to Succeed, Says Paul Nurse

Article excerpt

What is the point of science? It is a question that gets asked in many contexts, from students struggling through science A-levels to governments struggling with decisions on where to spend limited public funds. Science is the discovery of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. It is about improving health and the quality of life, securing sustainability and protection of the environment, contributing to culture and enhancing our civilisation. It should be at the heart of society.

All of this sounds high-minded and such arguments would probably not convince the Treasury in a time of austerity. Yet science has fared better than other areas when it comes to public spending, and for good reason - it is a driver for the economy. Should UK science breathe a sigh of relief and be thankful that cuts were not deeper? No, because the sector is the best bet for fuelling economic growth.

Britain's science sector is one of the world's best, providing the base to promote innovation and commercialisation here, giving us a sounder economy built on high-end manufacturing and design, rather than just on financial services.

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The government seems to understand this, but lacks the courage of its convictions. In his recent autumn statement, George Osborne made repeated reference to the importance of science and engineering in rebalancing the economy towards sustainable, innovation-based growth. But this is stifled by the short-term thinking that is so often the obsession of governments aware of a forthcoming election. We spend roughly 1.8 per cent of our GDP on science. The Americans spend about 2.7 per cent; the South Koreans spend 3 per cent. Between 1989 and 2009 the UK went from being fifth in terms of producing patents in the US to eighth - South Korea went from nowhere to third.

A flat-cash settlement for funding the work of our scientists in the last spending review, increases in tax credits on research and developmental occasional one-off injections of capital spending, including [pounds sterling]200m in the Chancellor's autumn statement (though still not replacing the [pounds sterling]360m a year that was cut from the science capital budget in the Comprehensive Spending Review), are all OK. But what about some real vision? We cannot hope to compete in the long term if our competitors are investing more than we do in research and development.

The government spent [pounds sterling]76bn on shares in RBS and Lloyds, more than ten times the annual science budget. Surely we would be better served by making strategic investment decisions with such money - look at what we are good at and invest heavily in it. …