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Gordon Brown: U.K. Science Won't Be an Economic Victim

Challenging the economic gloom that seems to hit the news everyday, Gordon Brown, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, today assured the scientific community that U.K. research will not be "a victim of the recession." The pledge came at Oxford University in a lecture addressing science and science education policy in which Brown further promised to keep science funding flowing despite an overstretched government budget. "Some say that now is not the time to invest, but the bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science," he said.

The prime minister's speech, "Science and Our Economic Future," was this year’s Romanes Lecture, an event hosted annually by the University of Oxford since 1892. Previous speakers include notable scientists, authors, and politicians such as Arthur Eddington, W. H. Bragg, Winston Churchill, Karl Popper, Iris Murdoch, and Shirley Tilghman. (Here's a link to the speech delivered by the prime minister and also a link to an audio file of the speech.)

Brown’s address highlighted his vision for science as a driver of the U.K.'s economic future, a desire that has triggered much debate within the scientific community. "The time has come to build a society that seeks high-value engineering, not financial engineering," Brown remarked, saying that looking for the "the great scientists of tomorrow" should be a "national ambition."

The prime minister pledged the government's commitment to make science education more accessible to students nationwide and to increase the number of schools offering science courses when students are preparing for A-level exams during the last year of middle school. Brown also said that the new push for science in schools could open opportunities for graduates with scientific and IT backgrounds; he encouraged them to retrain as teachers.

Scientists, science policy experts, and educators generally welcomed Brown’s attention to their world, but that didn’t stop several from airing a few complaints about the government’s record on research funding or the lack of specifics on new money in the speech.

Physicist Brian Cox of the University of Manchester embraced Brown's commitments to science but told the Science Media Centre one way the U.K. leader could back up the rhetoric: "What better way for the Prime Minister to signal his intent than to personally sort out the mess that Science and Technology Facilities Council has been in since its botched formation in 2007 and help both organisations [STFC and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council] with their small but damaging funding problems," he asked.

Astronomer Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, particularly welcomed the speech's focus on science education, saying in a statement that he was "delighted that the Prime Minister has thrown his support behind plans to address the lack of specialist teachers in science and maths" and reminded that "the school children of today should be the scientists of the future."

Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering in the U.K., was not impressed by Brown's speech, however. "Just maintaining current spending commitments will mean that we are losing ground against countries, like the U.S., that are giving science a huge boost within their stimulus packages. The government has got the U.K. back in the race to be a world leader in science, but unless it keeps pace we will lose talent and investment to other countries that are following up fine words with hard cash," he said to the SMC.