Royal Society: Protect U.K. Science to Ensure Economic Health

Hot on the heels of the U.K. Council for Science and Technology's (CST's) Vision for UK Research last Monday, the Royal Society this week releases its own report on the future of scientific research in Britain. The Scientific Century: Securing our future prosperity—drawn up by an ad hoc advisory group of 18 experts from the academic, business, and science policy realms—was unveiled to the media yesterday.

The conclusions of the group, chaired by mathematician Martin Taylor of Manchester University, are strikingly similar to those of the CST. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first of these is that the United Kingdom needs to at least maintain science and technology funding through the recession to avoid losing its finest minds overseas. Unlike countries such as the U.S. and France, the U.K. has so far not tried to spend its way out of the recession by injecting "stimulus" funds into science and other sectors. "The very same week that the United Kingdom announced a £600 million [$905 million] cut in our universities, the French announced a spectacular €35 billion [$48 billion] package of investment in their knowledge economy," said Taylor.

The Royal Society group also agrees with the CST that research spending needs to focus on the most able scientists rather than being directed toward specific projects. In the report, Taylor and his colleagues insist that "the benefits of research are often serendipitous and may not match those envisaged in a grant proposal. Scientists need flexibility to exploit the new opportunities that emerge from their research."

The groups disagree, however, on the issue of research exploitation. The CST report stated, "the weakness of UK research policy has been in translating research outputs into economic and social benefit, and this needs to be addressed urgently." But the Royal Society group insists that this is a popular myth, pointing out that the number of patents granted to universities every year has risen by 136% between 2000 and 2008 and that high-tech industrial parks have recently emerged in several major U.K. towns and cities.

The Royal Society report was welcomed by the U.K. minister for science and innovation, Paul Drayson. "This report clearly spells out the importance of science to the U.K. economy and recognizes this government's track record of investment," he said.