Page last updated at 18:02 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

UK science 'must meet challenge' of emerging nations

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

Buckyball (SPL)

The British government's top scientific advisory body has challenged ministers to maintain the upward trajectory in science spending.

The Council for Science and Technology published a report on Monday that sets out a vision to protect and enhance research excellence in the UK.

The panel said it was vital the competition from emerging powers, such as China and India, was met head on.

But it warned current investment had to be sustained to make this possible.

The UK's public research budget has doubled since 1997 under a 10-year framework (begun in 2004) that should see total science spending top £6bn for 2010/11.

This upward path needed to be continued into the future, said Professor Dame Janet Finch, the council's co-chair.

"Irrespective of whatever government we have in power, we need to ensure there is stability not only of research funding but also stability of purpose, direction and vision," she told BBC News.

"It is essential to do this," council member Professor Alan Hughes added. "Most of our international rivals have invested extremely heavily in boosting their investment in this area."

'Critical mass'

The council's report - A Vision for UK Research - assesses the current status of UK science and considers ways to build on past and current successes.

It acknowledges that UK research is second only to the US by most measures, but warns this position is coming under increasing threat.

The report says government needs a clear vision for investment and needs to maintain that vision across the entire research base - from the sciences right through to the arts and humanities.

It says excellence must continue to be the overriding guiding principle for funding, and that the money should go wherever excellence is found, not necessarily to a prior selection of institutions or centres.

Collaborations will be key to future success, both within the UK and beyond, it believes.

Because Britain is a small country, it will need to make partnerships to achieve the sort of critical mass required to match up to the effort being mounted by some emerging research nations.

It also wants to see funding focused more on the top people, not just on the top projects.

The council says these individuals are in the best position to react and adapt to new opportunities and trends; and the advisors make a number of recommendations on the organisation and funding of PhDs and personal support for scientists.

Translational efforts

In addition, the council would like to see the UK work harder to draw top researchers to the country and then make it attractive for them to stay and pursue their careers long-term in Britain.

And the council believes government needs to improve the links between basic and applied research (although it prefers the terms "upstream" and "downstream"), to maximise the economic returns from scientific endeavour.

US: Doubling basic science spend 2006-16, plus a $21bn R&D boost
China: $860m R&D investment to help Chinese companies
Germany: 500m euros for transport research; 900m euros for collaborative R&D in SMEs
France: 750m-euro boost for higher education and research

"The more powerful and successful our research base is, the more it is an effective magnet for international mobile R&D to locate in the UK," said Professor Hughes. "And that leads to well being in terms of creation of new activities and jobs in the UK."

The report says it should be easier for researchers to move between academia and business.

Dr Hermann Hauser, the renowned Cambridge science entrepreneur, has been working with the council on this issue.

He commented: "Having worked in the area for a long time now, it is clear there is only one method for transferring knowledge out of R&D departments into companies, and that is by transferring people. Knowledge has feet and walks out of laboratories into company research organisations."

To make this happen, he favours setting up "intermediate organisations", along the lines of the German Fraunhofer Society, which support translational activity with funding from both the private and public sectors.

Responding to the council's report, Nick Dusic for the Campaign for Science & Engineering said: "The report lays out a strong case for continued investment in science engineering during this economic downturn and through the forthcoming election. And it's extremely important that all the political parties respond to the recommendations in this report and set out their vision for science and technology."

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