Page last updated at 00:29 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Former science ministers make joint investment call

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

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Former Labour and Conservative science ministers have teamed up to challenge the next UK government to maintain investment in science.

Lords Sainsbury and Waldegrave said that continued investment was essential to Britain's future prosperity.

The pair made their call at the launch of a Royal Society report looking at the economic impact of research.

Britain's public spending on science has doubled in real terms over the past 10 years to more than £6bn.

The former ministers said that whichever party formed the next administration, it had to show political leadership and resist the temptation to make cuts to the research budget.

UK strength in science (Royal Society)

"We've gone from 'brain-drain' to 'brain-gain' and if we're not careful and we start cutting - that will reverse. That would be hugely damaging," said Lord Sainsbury, who served as science minister for eight years under Labour.

And Lord Waldegrave, a science minister in the Thatcher government, added: "It's absolutely crucial to keep foreign direct investment coming into this country and one of the things that will do that is to see that we are serious about maintaining the continuity of policy in science and technology."

The peers were speaking at the launch of The Scientific Century: Securing Our Future Prosperity, a report that aims to assess the UK's current status and future prospects in a global knowledge economy.

It highlights the benefits that have stemmed from continued investment over the long-term.

It dismisses the oft-repeated line that "the UK is good at science but bad at exploiting its results".

The report says an innovation economy has emerged in recent years with universities becoming fledgling economic powerhouses.

It says patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% between 2000 and 2008 and university spin-outs employed 14,000 people in 2007/08 and had a turnover of £1.1bn.

Other nations' investment (Royal Society)

While the report also cites examples of science driving successful sectors of the economy such as pharmaceuticals, business R&D is picked out as a weakness for the UK.

In 2007, British companies spent 1.14% of GDP on R&D, while in the US the figure was 1.9% and in Germany 1.8%.

Sir Martin Taylor, a professor of mathematics at Manchester University and the chair of the report's advisory group, warned that competitive advantage was now at risk as other countries invested heavily in the downturn.

The US, China, India, France and Germany have all ramped up spending on science to boost their economies.

"UK science is absolutely world-class but without the right funding, we could lose our premier league status and get relegated," he said.

The Royal Society report lists six recommendations. It wants government to:

• Put science and innovation at the heart of economic policy
• Invest in the best people, not just the best projects
• Strengthen the use of scientific advice in government
• Promote the UK as hub that draws the world's best scientists
• Focus science on the "grand challenges", such as food security
• Revitalise science and mathematics education

The Royal Society report echoes the document produced last week by the Council for Science and Technology (CST), the body which acts as the government's key source of scientific advice.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) has called on the political parties to spell out their post-election intentions on research spending.

CaSE director Nick Dusic told BBC News: "We do not have clarity from all the parties on their spending commitments for science and engineering.

"The party leaders need to respond to the letters they have received from CaSE asking them to set out their long-term science funding plans for the electorate.

"Stability is very important - that means seeing through the science budget allocation commitments to 2011 and maintaining the trajectory of the 10-year framework until 2014."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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