Page last updated at 07:00 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Ministers' 1bn UK science plea

By Pallab Ghosh
Science Correspondent, BBC News

President Obama (AFP)
Pressure is mounting to follow the US example of putting money into science

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) is pressing for a £1bn cash boost to scientific research.

Dius is in discussions with the Treasury to agree the funds before next month as part of a stimulus package.

Ministers say the UK should follow the recent US example of increasing science funding significantly.

The approach is intended to keep academic talent in the UK while putting money quickly into the ailing economy.

President Obama recently boosted US science spending by more than $21bn (£15bn) as part of his economic stimulus package.

Westminster ministers with responsibility for science are telling the Treasury that the UK should follow suit.

Unless it does, they argue, the downturn will destroy scientific skills that draw high-tech companies to the UK.

The BBC has learned that funding bodies have been asked for a "shopping list" of ideas that would strengthen British science and boost the economy quickly.

Proposals are likely to include additional funding for high-quality research, new laboratories, more young scientists and ideas that would be of use to industry - such as studies into clean energy technologies.

Dius ministers are concerned that if the UK doesn't keep up, researchers will go to the US or to Asian countries - where research funding is also being dramatically increased.

Wise usage

Ministers and scientific funding bodies are unable to comment while negotiations are ongoing with the Treasury.

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Nick Dusic of the Campaign for Science and Engineering told BBC News that "President Obama has led the way by making investment in science and engineering central to US's economic recovery and future prosperity.

"If there is going to be an economic stimulus package in the spring budget, science and engineering needs to be a central part of it."

Privately, many research leaders are determined to ensure highly trained scientists and engineers don't get lost during the downturn.

They are telling ministers and officials at Dius that additional spending on research grants or post-doctoral fellowships could help ensure that the UK retains talent for when the economy picks up.

They are also arguing that money spent on upgrading laboratories, as President Obama has done, would pump money into the economy quickly while also supporting researchers.

The president's instruction is that the money has to be spent quickly, but wisely.

Much of it has been allocated to basic research funding, although a significant proportion is for updating laboratories and scientific equipment.

"Investing in science and engineering would help address the government's ambition to rebalance the economy," Mr Dusic said.

"The government could complement boosting the supply of scientists with priming demand for it by facilitating investment in infrastructure projects and venture capital."

Dius is also considering proposals to create two funds to encourage venture capitalists to invest in small high-tech companies by matching their investment with public funding.



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