Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 00:39 UK

Bank chief 'wrong' about science

By Pallab Ghosh
Science Correspondent, BBC News

Roy Anderson
Roy Anderson: Science is one of the few options to create a new industrial base for Britain

The head of Britain's largest science university says the Bank of England's governor was wrong to caution against more spending on science.

Professor Sir Roy Anderson says that investment in science is "one of the few options" the government has to kick-start the economy.

He thinks there should be a big rise in science spending as part of a new high technology industrial strategy.

Professor Anderson is the rector of Imperial College.

Last month, BBC News revealed that ministers were arguing the case for a one billion pound boost to science spending as part of an overall economic stimulus package.

Within days the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, argued against a further stimulus package because of the high levels of public debt.

The government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, has said that Mr King's remarks and their timing had reduced the chances of the government approving a boost to science spending.

Professor Sir Roy Anderson, however, believes that the case for a science stimulus package is still "in the balance" and so has spoken to BBC News to argue the case for such a measure.

"Mervyn King's announcement of course was not the best news for science when [we] were just trying to persuade senior ministers that this is a real opportunity to the British economy," he said.

"I can understand his caution, however I'd still argue with him that in essence how are we going to position the UK economy coming out of the recession? I'd argue that science and technology is one of our few options and it's a good time to provide that stimulus."

Picking winners

As well as supporting moves for increased spending on science, Professor Anderson is leading efforts to persuade the government to set up a separate £1bn venture capital fund to support small high technology companies.

"We have a wonderful discovery base, But we don't have sufficient venture capital money to establish these companies with good quality management to help them to grow and market themselves to become bigger," he explained.

"Secondly, we don't have a vision for the manufacturing opportunities for high technology manufacturing to create a new industrial base for the United Kingdom."

Some observers argue that this kind of investment is best done by the private sector. How would he respond to criticisms that this use of public money to support promising new ideas is akin to the old controversial government policy of "picking winners"?

"My argument would be that the culture and environment and cautiousness of venture capital in the UK is such that it hasn't generated the translation of our discovery into good quality companies," he said.

"(That environment is) far too cautious, far too limited in the amount of money it is prepared to invest in new ideas and it is far too limited in scientific literacy."

Professor Anderson believes that a publicly directed venture capital fund would quickly create new and much needed hi-tech jobs in the midst of the recession: "Small companies employ more people than big companies in total in the UK," he explained.

"Often the focus is to protect the giants - we feel that one could generate very quickly a lot of small high technology companies which would provide exciting and interesting employment for graduates in a very diverse array of disciplines."

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