Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Q&A: Lord Drayson on science spend

Lord Drayson
UK Science Minister, Lord Drayson, has called for more of the research budget to be spent in areas that would benefit the economy.

BBC News website readers sent their questions about science funding to Lord Drayson. Below, he responds to your questions.

Do you plan to introduce tax incentives to get companies to spend more in research and development (R&D) thereby making us more internationally competitive? Do you plan to divert the huge sums spent on defence research to projects that confront the major threats facing the planet - fusion research would be one example?
Paul Gardner, Llangynidr, Powys

Lord Drayson: We are already offering substantial tax incentives to get companies to invest more in R&D through the government's R&D tax credits scheme. A CBI survey published in February notes that the R&D tax credit is an important factor for companies when deciding where to base R&D operations, and this scheme has improved the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for high value investment and jobs.

Defence research is needed to ensure we continue to maintain strong and effective defence forces into the future. It comes out of the defence budget and we do not intend to divert it into other projects. Nevertheless defence research often leads to breakthroughs which provide civilian benefit - e.g. radar.

Research into ways to reduce global warming often shows that they will not be good for the economy for our generation but will benefit our children and grandchildren. Does such research qualify for funding in a recession?
Marion Monahan, Bristol UK

Lord Drayson: Yes. Research into global warming is a top priority for the government. We are working on three things: understanding its causes, how it works and its effects; developing the right technology to adapt to it; and encouraging people to behave differently. Many parts of government are involved. For example, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was set up to give a strong focus for what the government is doing. And through Department for Innovation, Universities and skills, the Natural Environment Research Council funds fundamental research.

Twenty bodies have got together in the 1bn Living with Environmental Change programme which was launched last year. It will help to give us a low carbon economy, increase the resistance of people and places to environmental change and ensure supplies of food and water.

Lord Drayson, shouldn't we be concentrating on science that will benefit humanity rather than the economy? What kind of research do you think should be restricted in terms of funding?
Sarah, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Lord Drayson: Well I don't see those as mutually exclusive. Benefits to the economy improve our standards of living and allow us to invest more in healthcare and education and so on. But yes, I certainly agree that we should invest in science that improves quality of life and has positive social impacts as well as wealth creation. As for restricting funding - I believe we should only fund high quality research.

Do you recognise that the full potential of any area of research is not usually possible to assess in advance, and that attempts to tie research funding to provable economic benefit are likely in practice to close off hugely valuable research routes? Would you agree that historically, societies that have seen the greatest dynamism and innovation have been those willing to provide resources for research on the basis of scientific criteria and scientists' inspiration and enthusiasm, rather than according to political or industrial agendas?
Ben Drake, York, UK

Lord Drayson: Yes I do. I agree with your analysis. Some people have claimed that the government wants to cut back on research funding that isn't going to have an instant impact, but that's just not true. I said in my speech that I firmly believe we need to continue to invest in fundamental or 'blue-skies' research. Not all of that work will necessarily lead to an impact, and some may take many years. It doesn't mean we won't fund work where the benefits are difficult to predict, we just want the system to be better geared up to make the most of opportunities when they arise. And to the people who say "it will take 10 years before this research leads to an impact", let me say "yes, but what's happening today to the research you did eight years ago - are we doing enough to develop that?"

How do you determine which areas of research will be the most profitable or more deserving, from an economic perspective, of a bigger slice of funding? Also, how can you ensure this research will be exploited in a way that primarily benefits the UK? Is it not much more likely that anything economically beneficial will be exploited in a way that will primarily benefit shareholders, rather than Britain as a whole (and especially the tax-payers who have funded these scientists through their undergraduate and postgraduate training)?
Nick Owen, Dublin, Ireland

Lord Drayson: I suggested some criteria in my speech - I said we could look for areas where we have clear competitive advantage, where there's a significant growth opportunity for the future, and where we have a realistic prospect of being number one or two in the world. But I'd like to hear what people think about that approach. I can't guarantee that all the benefits will end up in the UK - but I think my criteria will help - and we will get more back from our investment by working to exploit the research than by leaving it to wither. Developing and strengthening high-technology, knowledge intensive businesses creates high quality jobs, and quality businesses that have a long term future and are less likely to disappear in the face of global competition. And even where we licence technology abroad, that means income to the UK and improved international links that could in turn lead to inward investment later on.

The Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform's most up-to-date science, engineering and technology statistics show that the UK still lags behind Japan, the United States, Germany, France and Canada in terms of government-financed gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a proportion of GDP. Shouldn't we be debating why we are spending so little on science, rather than how we should spend it?
Bob Ward, London, UK

Lord Drayson: Yes, I agree we need a debate about our spending on R&D by both the public and private sectors as a proportion of GDP that should go into funding science. In 2004 the Government made a 10 year commitment to increase spending in line with trend growth. That commitment has been maintained and it is vital we continue to fund science during these difficult times. But there is also a debate that needs to take place about how the money is spent and whether we get best value for the economy and society. That is the point of my speech.

Who will decide what is likely to be beneficial to the economy? Sending a man to the moon may have been classed as a stupid idea but we may not have many of the products we have today (including non-stick pans) if it had not been for this research.
Philip Wood, Wirral, UK

Lord Drayson: In opening this debate, I am looking for input from all parts of society. I have suggested some criteria for making such decisions - but I have also said that government ministers should not make them on their own. I agree that it is not easy to predict where science may lead, that's what makes it exciting - and difficult to manage. I agree that the Apollo moon programme was very effective in pushing technological development as well as inspiring a generation to take up science and engineering.

While benefit to the economy seems a perfectly reasonable criterion for setting research priorities - although it must not be the sole criterion - how can we ensure that the prospective benefit is estimated appropriately, taking into account the now widely recognised, fundamental dependence of economic structures on a wide range of ecosystem services, few of which are traded directly in markets? And how can we ensure that adequate funds are directed to long-term research into the links between biodiversity and nature conservation, ecosystem health, and the role of ecosystems in delivering services and supporting economic activity? If we fail to address the pressing need for this research essential to understanding the ways in which the key problems facing human societies today (climate change, biodiversity loss, overpopulation...) will affect our lives and our economies, then we will merely reconstruct an economic house of cards on foundations of sand.
Rob Tinch, Brussels, Belgium

Lord Drayson: You are right that we need to develop our economic models to take into account the wider perspective. Links and feedbacks between the natural environment, ecosystem services and human well-being will be a key part of our research programme: Living with Environmental Change (see Q2). Research is aimed at ameliorating expected shortfalls in water, food and energy resources, as well as improving human health and making the economy overall more resilient to change. It will help deliver national needs and such international obligations as Kyoto and the Millennium Development Goals.

How long would it take to make this decision, identify 'worthy' projects, re-allocate the funding, develop the projects in to marketable products and (finally) reap a return? Tim Mindham, Wallingford, Oxon

Lord Drayson: I think we need to be clear on our priorities this year. The pace and scale of the global economic downturn requires us to act quickly. However I also see this as an ongoing process- not something only done once. Over time we should monitor the effectiveness of our research strategy and tune it as necessary.

Too often in the past, British research and inventions have been neglected by the British government only to be developed and exploited by other countries. How will you ensure that pure R&D doesn't wither on the vine because of government, media and industry pre-occupation with instant profit?
Ken, UK

Lord Drayson: It is true that many British discoveries and inventions in the past have not been exploited fully to create wealth and jobs in the UK. This problem has been around for decades and there are many reasons for it. However I do believe, based on my own experience as a PhD student, as a science entrepreneur and now as science minister that things have improved over the last ten years. Our universities are much better at technology transfer and commercialisation of science. Investors tell me that the current crop of science spin-outs are "the best they have seen for thirty years."

We are also investing in supporting innovation and the commercialisation of technological developments. Between 2008-11 the Technology Strategy Board, working with the UK Research Councils and the Regional Development Agencies, will invest over 1 billion in supporting innovation in UK firms.

I also recognise that pure research often leads to the most unexpected and important breakthroughs which is why I am committed to maintaining it. We are increasing our investment in science to over 6bn per annum and this will include significant funding for pure research.

Thank you for your interest - the full text of my speech can be found on the right hand link on this page.

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