Page last updated at 10:08 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 11:08 UK

Science minister urges investment

By Maggie Shiels
BBC News, San Francisco

Robert Klein and UK Science Minister Lord Drayson (BBC)
A conference to boost collaboration between scientists will be held in 2009

The UK's science minister has urged the government not to abandon investing in science amid the financial crisis.

Lord Paul Drayson told the BBC that "science is fundamentally vital to the wellbeing of our society, our people and our economy.

"We need to maintain investment so the great work done so far is not lost."

His comments were made at the signing of an agreement between the UK and California to make it easier to obtain joint funding for stem cell research.

Under the deal, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine will fund the work of California team members while the UK's Medical Research Council will pay for work carried out in Britain.

"Natural partnership"

In the US, federal funding for stem cell research is only given if it meets a strict set of rules.

Critics argue that scientists should not be allowed to destroy embryos, which are typically left over from in-vitro fertilisation, to obtain embryonic stem cells.

In 2001, President Bush agreed and banned using federal funds to create new embryonic stem cell lines. Scientists said this resulted in too few lines to work with which were also of poor quality.

In contrast, four years ago California voters approved $3bn in bonds to support stem cell science, including research banned from federal funding.

Stem cell research
Stem cells can turn into many types of tissue for use in regenerative medicine

Lord Drayson said the memorandum of understanding signed between the UK and California at a conference at San Francisco airport was a "natural partnership".

The science minister also claimed the deal would enable researchers "to take their research breakthroughs into the clinic faster and facilitate the creation of teams across the Atlantic".

The timing of the agreement could not be more perfect according to Robert Klein of the California Institute For Regenerative Medicine.

He said that one of the diseases the CIRM was likely to focus on in the future would be stem cell therapy for a type of macular degeneration that leads to a blindness that affects 7% of the US population over 75.

Mr Klein said the UK was well ahead in animal trials in this field and that the deal could pave the way for earlier than hoped for human trials.

"We are very hopeful that this collaboration can bring us together in human trials to prove the first global embryonic stem cell therapy. It will hopefully break open this entire field," he said.

"Silver lining"

Lord Drayson also told the BBC that he believed this partnership would lead to other collaborations, for instance in the field of "clean tech".

"I am interested in seeing how we can use models we have applied in one area of science and apply them to others where we have a strategic interest," said the minister.

A report this week by Berkeley University showed that California's plans to fight global warming and improve energy efficiency will boost household incomes by $48bn (27.9bn) and create as many as 403,000 jobs over the next 12 years.

The economic downturn has led to fears that investment in clean tech projects and others could be put on the back-burner.

Lord Drayson said such a move would be foolish and that governments, including the UK's, needed to "maintain their focus on investing in science".

"Scientific research is fundamental to the health and prosperity of the UK as a nation.

"We need also to look at how we can make it more efficient because every penny counts in these difficult times; but I certainly believe this is something that we absolutely need to maintain for the future."

The science minister also suggested the present economic woes might actually result in a "silver lining" for biotech and stem cell science.

"In the recent past, the venture capital investment in these areas has been slightly starved of funds because a lot of the investment went into private equity and hedge funds," he said.

"The view is that that money will now be redirected to biotech and stem cell therapies as people in the financial markets are looking to see what areas of investment are going to make sense in the future."

He said while it was still early days to talk of a shift in funding, he hoped the "balance will be addressed".

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