Is debt putting British science at risk?

This was my opening statement at a debate at the Cheltenham Science Festival. This piece also appears as a guest blog on the Times’s Science blog “Eureka Zone”; see also Mark Henderson’s commentary on the debate as a whole.

The question we are posed is “Is debt putting British science at risk?” The answer to this question is certainly yes – we are all aware of the need to arrest the growth in the nation’s debt, and the science budget looks very vulnerable. There is a moral case against excessive debt – it is those in the next generations, our children, who will be paying higher taxes to service this debt. But we can leave a positive inheritance for future generations as well. The legacy we leave them comes from the science we do now. It’s this science that will underpin their future prosperity. We also know that future generations will have to face some big problems – problems that may be so big that they even threaten their way of life. How will we adapt to the climate change we know is coming? How will we get the energy we need to run our energy-dependent society without further adding to that climate change, when the cheap oil we’ve relied on may be a distant memory? How will we feed a growing population? How will we make sure that we can keep our aging population well? These are the problems that we have left future generations to deal with, so we owe it to them to do the science that will provide the solutions.

It’s worth reminding ourselves about the legacy we inherited – what’s happened as a result of the science done in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. I’m going to give just two examples. The first is in the area of health. Many people know the story of how monoclonal antibodies were invented by Cesar Milstein in the Cambridge MRC lab in 1975, a discovery for which he won the Nobel prize in 1984. Further developments took place, notably the method of “humanising” mouse antibodies invented by Greg Winter, also at the MRC lab. This is now the basis of a $32 billion dollar market; one third of all new pharmaceutical treatments are based on this technology, including new treatments for breast cancer, arthritis, asthma and leukemia. And, contrary to the stereotype that the UK is good at science but bad at making money from it, this technology is now licensed to 50 companies, earning £300 million in royalties for MRC. The two main spin-out companies were sold for a total of £932 million, one to AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, and these large companies are continuing to generate value for the UK from them. So this is a very clear example of a single invention that led to a new industry.

Often the situation is much more complicated than this; rather than a single invention one has a whole series of linked breakthroughs in science, technology and business. Like many other people, I’m delighted with my new smartphone; this is a symbol of a vast new sector of the economy based on information and communication technology. Many people know that the web as we now know it was made possible by the work of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, a spin-off from the high energy physics effort at CERN; perhaps fewer know about the way the hardware of the web depends on optical fibre, in which so much work was done at Southampton. The basics of how to run a wireless network were developed by the company Racal, the spin-out from which, Vodafone, became a global giant in its own right. The display on my smartphone uses liquid crystals, invented at Hull, while newer e-book readers are starting to use e-ink displays reliant of the technology of Plastic Logic, a spin-out based in the plastic electronics work done in the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge in the 1990’s. So there’s a whole web of invention – an international effort, certainly, but one in which the UK has made a disproportionately large contribution, with economic value generated in all kinds of ways. It’s having a strong science base that allows one to benefit from this kind of web of innovation.

The case for science is made in the excellent Royal Society report “The Scientific Century – securing our future prosperity”. This had input from two former science ministers (one Conservative, one Labour) – Lords Sainsbury and Waldegrave, outstanding science leaders like Sir Paul Nurse and Mark Walport, a few rank-and-file scientists like myself, and was put together by the excellent Science Policy team at the Royal Society. I think it’s thoughtful, evidence-based and compelling.

I’d like to highlight three reasons why we should keep our science base strong.

Firstly, it will underpin our future prosperity. The transformation of science into products through spin-out companies is important, but the role of science in underpinning the economy goes much deeper than this. It’s through the trained people that come out of the science enterprise and its connections with existing industry that the so-called “absorptive capacity” of the economy is underpinned – the ability of an economy to make the most of the opportunities that science and technology will bring.

Secondly, it will give us the tools to solve the big problems we know we are going to face. Tough times are coming – the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir John Beddington, talks of the “perfect storm” we face, when continuing population pressure, climate change and the end of cheap energy all come together from 2020 onwards. It is science that will give us the tools to get through this time and prosper. We don’t know what will work in advance, so we need to support many different approaches. In my own area of nanotechnology, I’m particularly excited by the prospects for new kinds of solar cells that will be much cheaper and made on a much larger scale than current types, allowing solar energy to make a real contribution to our energy needs. And some of my colleagues are developing new ways of delivering drugs that can cross the blood-brain barrier and help us deal with those intractable neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s that are exacting such high and growing human and economic costs on our aging society. But these are just two from many promising lines of attack on our growing problems, and it’s vital to maintain science in its diversity. To cut back on science now, in the face of these coming threats, would amount to unilateral disarmament.

Thirdly, we should support science in the UK because we’re very good at it. The “Scientific Century” report quotes the figures that with 1% of the world’s population, and 3% of the world’s spending on science, we produce 7.9% of the worlds scientific papers. The impact of these papers is measured by the fact that they attract 11.8% of the citations that other scientific papers make; of the most highly cited papers – the ones that have the biggest impact – the UK produces 14.4%. Arguably, we produce more top quality science for less money than anyone else. And despite myths to the contrary, we are effective at translating science into economic benefit – our universities are now more focused on exploiting what they do than ever before, and as good at this as anywhere in the world. Our success in science is a source of advantage to us in a very competitive world, and a cause of envy in other countries that are investing significantly to try and match our performance.

So if debt is the problem we leave to future generations, science is the legacy we leave them; we owe it to them not to damage our science success story now.

4 thoughts on “Is debt putting British science at risk?”

  1. Dear Richard,

    This is of course good stuff, but I just wonder what is happening to industrial research. If industry is cutting back in the recession to protect its bottom line today so that there is a tomorrow, then there is the argument that cutting back on public funded research today allows us to invest in it tomorrow.

    Another argument that concerns me is the view that we are somehow special. As far as a hard-nosed politician is concerned I guess we are another special interest group. Funding research for tomorrow does not help health or education, and nor does it reduce poverty today.

    I am not making these points because I believe them, but because, that I think they ought to be addressed.

    Here in France investment seems pretty good, so the dynamism of competing nations is a powerful argument to make even if it does not address either of the points above.

    That’ll do, but before I go, since when were you rank-and-file? I’ve only been out of the country for four weeks, but you are still pro-vice chancellor, right?



    PS A propos of not very much, well done to Athene!

  2. Mark, I don’t sense there’s a great deal of severe retrenchment in industrial research at the moment, beyond the usual ebb and flow. Of course you are quite right about the limited short term impact of reducing science funding – that’s why I thought it was so important to stress the long term in this piece.

    I absolutely agree with you about science as a special interest group. I think the sense of entitlement that seems sometimes to accompany these arguments is fantastically unhelpful (there were some particularly bad examples of this around the time when the STFC funding crisis first emerged) and I tried very hard to avoid that tone here.

    As for rank-and-file – well, that’s relative. I may still be a PVC (though I wasn’t one when nominated for this working group) but I’m not a former science minister (like Waldegrave and Sainsbury), I don’t run the world’s largest research charity or a major international research funder (Walport, Nowotny), I am not a leading science policy specialist (Nowotny again, Martin) and I don’t have a Nobel Prize (Nurse, Evans). Which leaves me, Richard Friend, Emily Holmes and Ann Dowling as representatives of the science and engineering rank and file.

    Indeed, my warmest congratulations to Dame Athene!

  3. As has been commented on this blog before, much of the problem with expecting the Government to see the long term importance of science is that long term (like the status of PVC) is a relative term. Our Government may only just have been elected, but it will be thinking hard about voter appeal and the public at large don’t really understand the arguments you make about how science impacts on their way of life. Indeed, many will take better healthcare, smartphones etc as their ‘entitlement’, without appreciating the complexity and diversity of the science and technology required to make such things happen. Our politicians, by and large, aren’t much better. (By the by, I await to see how the new Science Sub-committee shapes up – indeed whether my erstwhile colleague from the Cavendish Julian Huppert finds a seat on it. Here is someone who used the useful term ‘evidence-based policing’ on his website in the run up to the election, again a term the majority of people, politicians included, would probably not relate to.)

    The press have got quite animated about the dangers to the UK university system if swingeing cuts are made, largely because the aims of the last government to get a much higher proportion of young people into the university system mean that many of their readers will be feeling extremely anxious for their own children, to continue the intergenerational theme – but also because we have active spokespeople at the highest levels who are doing a fine job of lobbying. Somehow, we as scientists need to get more vocal at all levels to ensure the media understand better the all-pervasiveness of science, and the dangers – for their readers AND their children – if the science funding is cut too deeply. We need to keep up the fight against short-termism and populism, of the sort that saw mephedrone reclassified, without waiting for robust scientific advice to support its perceived dangers or even to check that it had indeed led to the deaths that the media howled about. This is not about entitlement, it is about ensuring that we make our case whenever and wherever we can. Something I know you, Richard, have been engaged in more than most of us. We need to do this at every possible opportunity, however hard the fight to get our words correctly reported or the sentiments we want to express taken on board by journalists struggling with the vocabulary. Speaking as someone who avoided the media for many years because of getting burnt by them, I have come to realise this is not an adequate position to take.

    Many thanks to you and Mark for your warm words. It is not my intention to use the ‘silly title’ much, as one of the greater than ‘rank and file’ scientists described it to me this weekend (though not one on your list of the great and good). To be technical, though, I do intend to use the post-nominal.

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