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UK Chancellor Osborne throws his weight – and a little money – behind science

Source: EUROSTAT

The British economy is in shtook, as the island’s residents might say. Recovering slowly from a double dip recession, policy experts agree that the answer is to shift its economy away from its reliance on finance to high tech services and manufacturing. Do that, and the UK has some hope of competing with the emerging economies of India and China in the future.

The problem – and it’s a doozy – is that spending on research and development by UK businesses has been in decline for around 30 years and while successive governments have funded basic science decently (though public spend on science as a proportion of GDP is lower than every G7 country except Italy), spending on applied research has seriously lagged. Add to that a long-standing reluctance for politicians to come up with an industrial strategy that provides stable support to nascent high tech businesses or the investment required to get industry and researchers working together, and the outlook for the UK economy looks gloomy. For researchers, the lack of a plan that puts research at the heart of the UK’s economic future dooms the science budget to being regarded by the Treasury as a frill – one that is susceptible to cuts if political fashions change.

All of that goes some way to explaining the stir of excitement among science policy wonks and researchers alike this morning when George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, arrived at the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science with science minister David Willetts, to talk about industrial policy. It wasn’t so much what Osborne said – but the fact that he was there at all.

Much of what he did say was nice enough, though to most pundits, largely motherhood and apple pie.

“I understand that scientific enquiry can’t be reduced to simple utilitarian calculation,” Osborne said. “Intellectual inquiry is worthwhile in itself.”

“You do not necessarily become a scientist to boost GDP,” he added later, “even though it is a very welcome consequence of much of what you do.”

He also mentioned a 2011 study by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), which found that the science base was an important reason for businesses to invest in the UK. But the key part of the speech was the announcement of eight key technological areas where the UK could be world-leading. Osborne’s hope is that focusing in this way will spur the growth of new businesses, though in the past, some politicians would have dismissed such a move as ‘picking winners’ – shoring up unprofitable industries with subsidies.

“As a scientific community we need to be willing to identify Britain’s strengths and reinforce them,” Osborne said. “We do not claim to be able to predict them with 100% accuracy. But we need some sort of assessment.”

In cash terms, the most significant of the eight areas was satellites and space – where Osborne said UK government spending would increase by about £60 million a year, through a boost to the country’s contributions to the European Space Agency (ESA) to roughly £240 million per year for the next five years. He also announced that ESA had agreed to locate its telecommunications satellite centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire, creating around 100 jobs.

But there were slim pickings for Osborne’s other seven priorities, which he was at pains to point out were chosen in consultation with the scientific community, the research councils that fund academic science and the Technology Strategy Board, which supports near-market R&D. There was £20 million for synthetic biology that addresses “major global challenges, such as producing low-carbon fuel and reducing the cost of industrial raw materials”. Big Data, regenerative medicine, agriscience, energy storage, advanced materials and robots though received no new cash – leaving uncertainty over what, exactly, the government would do to push these areas forward.

There was also an interesting admission. Earlier this year, the UK government announced, with much fanfare, £38 million (US$59 million) in funding for a National Graphene Institute at the University of Manchester – home to Nobel laureates Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov. The money was vaunted as a coherent strategy to capitalize on our scientific lead in graphene and spark a new industry based on the “miracle material” they discovered.

According to Osborne, however, the money was the result of a plea from the University of Manchester. After they had received their Nobel prizes, Geim and Novoselov had been feted by institutions in the United States and Singapore. The graphene investment was less a strategy and more a panic-stricken eleventh hour (albeit welcome) move to avoid the loss of two of the UK’s leading scientific lights – and, possibly, a whole new industry. If the UK is to steer clear of such last minute maneuvering in future then there has to be serious and sustained investment in science.

As Paul Nurse, the Royal Society’s president, said after thanking the Chancellor for his warm words, “Please don’t forget to put your money where your mouth is.”

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