Why has the UK given up on nanotechnology?

In a recent roundup of nanotechnology activity across the world, the consultancy Cientifica puts the UK’s activity pretty much at the bottom of the class. Is this a fair reflection of the actual situation? Comparing R&D numbers across countries is always difficult, because of the different institutional arrangements and different ways spending is categorised; but, broadly, this feels about right. Currently, the UK has no actual on-going nanotechnology program. Activity continues in projects that are already established, but the current plans for government science spending in the period 2011- 2015, as laid out in the various research council documents, reveal no future role for nanotechnology. The previous cross-council program “Nanoscience engineering through application” has been dropped; all the cross-council programmes now directly reflect societal themes such as “ageing population, environmental change, global security, energy, food security and the digital economy”. The delivery plan for the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, previously the lead council for nanotechnology, does not even mention the word, while the latest strategy document for the Technology Strategy Board, responsible for nearer-market R&D support, notes in a footnote that nanotechnology is “now embedded in all themes where there are such opportunities”.

So, why has the UK given up on nanotechnology? I suggest four reasons.

1. The previous government’s flagship nanotechnology program – the network of Micro- and Nano- Technology centres (the MNT program) is perceived as having failed. This program was launched in 2003, with initial funding of £90 million, a figure which subsequently was intended to rise to £200 million. But last July, the new science minister, David Willetts, giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, picked on nanotechnology as an area in which funding had been spread too thinly, and suggested that the number of nanotechnology centres was likely to be substantially pruned. To my knowledge, none of these centres has received further funding. In designing the next phase of the government’s translational research centres – a new network of Technology and Innovation Centres, loosely modelled on the German Fraunhofer centres, it seems that the MNT program has been regarded as a cautionary tale of how not to do things, rather than an example to build on, and nanotechnology in itself will play little part in these new centres (though, of course, it may well be an enabling technology for things like a regenerative medicine).

2. There has been no significant support for nanotechnology from the kinds of companies and industries that government listens to. This is partly because the UK is now weak in those industrial sectors that would be expected to be most interested in nanotechnology, such as the chemicals industry and the electronics industry. Large national champions in these sectors with the power to influence government, in the way that now-defunct conglomerates like ICI and GEC did in the past, are particularly lacking. Companies selling directly to consumers, in the food and personal care sectors, have been cautious about being too closely involved in nanotechnology for fear of a consumer backlash. The pharmaceutical industry, which is still strong in the UK, has other serious problems to deal with, so nanotechnology has been, for them, a second order issue. And the performance of small, start-up companies based on nanotechnology, such as Oxonica, has been disappointing. The effect of this was brought home to me in March 2010, when I met the then Science Minister, Lord Drayson, to discuss on behalf of the Royal Society the shortcomings of the latest UK Nanotechnology Strategy. To paraphrase his response, he said he knew the strategy was poor, but that was the fault of the nanotechnology community, which had not been able to get its act together to convince the government it really was important. He contrasted this with the space industry, which had been able to make what to him was a very convincing case for its importance.

3. The constant criticism that the government was receiving about its slow response to issues of the safety and environmental impact of nanotechnology was, I am sure, a source of irritation. The reasons for this slow response were structural, related to the erosion of support for strategic science within government (as opposed to the kind of investigator led science funded by the research councils – see this blogpost on the subject from Jack Stilgoe), but in this environment civil servants might be forgiven for thinking that this issue had more downside than upside.

4. Within the scientific community, there were few for whom the idea of nanotechnology was their primary loyalty. After the financial crisis, when it was clear that big public spending cuts were likely and their were fears of very substantial cuts in science budgets, it was natural for scientists either to lobby on behalf of their primary disciplines or to emphasise the direct application of their work to existing industries with strong connections to government, like the pharmaceutical and aerospace industries. In this climate, the more diffuse idea of nanotechnology slipped down a gap.

Does it matter that, in the UK, nanotechnology is no longer a significant element of science and innovation policy? On one level, one could argue that it doesn’t. Just because nanotechnology isn’t an important category by which science is classified by, this doesn’t mean that the science that would formerly have been so classified doesn’t get done. We will still see excellent work being supported in areas like semiconductor nanotechnology for optoelectronics, plastic electronics, nano-enabled drug delivery and DNA nanotech, to give just a few examples. But there will be opportunities missed to promote interdisciplinary science, and I think this really does matter. In straitened times, there’s a dangerous tendency for research organisations to retreat to core business, to single disciplines, and we’re starting to see this happening now to some extent. Interdisciplinary, goal-oriented science is still being supported through the societal themes, like the programs in energy and ageing, and it’s going to be increasingly important that these themes do indeed succeed in mobilising the best scientists from different areas to work together.

But I worry that it very much does matter that the UK’s efforts at translating nanotechnology research into new products and new businesses has not been more successful. But this is part of a larger problem. The UK has, for the last thirty years, not only not had an industrial policy to speak of, it has had a policy of not having an industrial policy. But the last three years have revealed the shortcomings of this, as we realise that we aren’t any more going to be able to rely on a combination of North Sea oil and the ephemeral virtual profits of the financial services industry to keep the country afloat

On Impact

This somewhat policy-heavy piece is an updated version of a talk I gave at a higher education policy conference last September – my apologies for blog readers not directly concerned with science and University funding in the UK, who may find it less enthralling.

What is this thing called “impact”, which has such a grip on Universities and funding agencies in the UK at the moment? Of course, it isn’t a thing at all; it’s a word that’s been adopted to stand for a number of overlapping, but still distinct, imperatives that are being felt by different public agencies concerned with different aspects of funding research in higher education in the UK, and which, in turn, different constituencies within UK higher education are attempting to steer.

The most immediate sources of talk about “impact” are the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and the different research councils, who operate jointly in this area under the umbrella of Research Councils UK (RCUK). These two manifestations of this impact agenda are, in fact, two rather different and separate issues. HEFCE wish to measure the impact of past research, as part of their overall program to assess the past research performance of Universities – the Research Excellence Framework – which subsequently will inform future allocations of funding to the Universities. RCUK, on the other hand, wishes to ensure that the research it funds is carried out in a way that maximises the chance that it does have impact. Both HEFCE and RCUK want the idea of impact to have a greater influence on funding decisions. But HEFCE’s version of impact is backward looking and concerned with measurement, RCUK’s interest is forward looking and concerned with changing behaviours.

It is important to understand the wider context which has driven this concern with impact. The immediate pressure has come from the funding council’s perception of a growing need to convince the Treasury that public spending on research brings a proportionate return to the UK as a whole. During the process of settling the science budget last autumn, in a very tight public spending round, this argument within government, has been dominant. And, to the extent that the budget settlement was not as bad as many had feared, perhaps this idea of impact did gain some traction. Certainly, last December’s letter (PDF here) announcing the science settlement called for “even more impact” – saying “Research Councils and Funding Councils will be able to focus their contribution on promoting impact through excellent research, supporting the growth agenda. They will provide strong incentives and rewards for universities to improve further their relationships with business and deliver even more impact in relation to the economy and society.”

But this focus on impact is only one manifestation of a much wider discussion about the value of research to society at large and how the values that underly publicly funded research should be aligned with widely shared societal values. The broader question is how we organise publicly funded research to realise its public value. For leaders and managers of HE institutions engaged in publicly funded research, this leads to fundamental questions about the missions and visions of their institutions and how this is communicated to their members.

What do we actually mean by “impact”? This, of course, is a highly contested question – there is a growing perception that the degree to which a particular discipline has a greater or lesser degree of impact on the wider world is directly connected to its value in the eyes of funding agencies, and so it’s not surprising that disciplines will wish to influence the definition of impact to maximise their contributions. Clearly science, engineering, medicine, social sciences, arts and the humanities will come at the problem with different emphases. The funding agencies will reflect a compromise position back to the academic communities they serve, while tailoring the message a different way in their interactions with their political masters.

HEFCE must, necessarily, take a broad view of impacts, as they serve the whole academic community. Engineers may emphasise the direct economic benefits that come from their research, social scientists information to underpin good public policy, while the humanities possibly more intangible cultural benefits. The task that HEFCE has set itself is devising a framework to measure and compare these incommensurable qualities. The methodology is starting to become clear. A pilot exercise tested a trial methodology in a number of different Universities in a handful of rather different subjects. The methodology combines the use of quantitative indicators, where appropriate, and narrative case studies, in which the external impact of research carried out by groups of researchers over some past period is described. The results of the pilot highlighted some predictable difficulties, and suggested some mitigating strategies. The timescales on which impact appears vary greatly from subject to subject, and even within subjects. For much research, impacts are captured outside higher education, whether that’s as a result of transfer of people from HE into industry or public service, or by the picking up of research ideas that are effectively in the public domain. As a result, the originators of research may well not be in a position to know about the impacts of their research.

The research councils have the apparent advantage that they can tailor the idea of impact more closely to their own constituencies. For the Medical Research Council (MRC), for example, it’s clear that improved health and well-being will be the primary category of their impact (though even here there may be many different routes to achieving those broad goals). The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will tend to emphasise economic impacts through spin-outs and partnerships with existing industry. Many researchers will be concerned that the growing emphasis on impact will lead inexorably towards a move from pure, curiosity-driven research to more applied research. The counter-argument from the research councils will be to emphasise that this is not what they want; instead they seek a more conscious consideration of why the impact of the research they sponsor matters. This emphasises the forward-looking nature of the impact agenda as understood by RCUK – the sections in research council grant applications about “pathways to impact” don’t seek to ask researchers to predict the future, instead they seek to change the behavior of researchers.

It’s clear that defining and assessing impact isn’t easy; the Science Minister, David Willetts, had earlier made his reservations about this clear. In a speech in July last year he announced a delay in the Research Excellence Framework, saying “The surprising paths which serendipity takes us down is a major reason why we need to think harder about impact. There is no perfect way to assess impact, even looking backwards at what has happened. I appreciate why scientists are wary, which is why I’m announcing today a one-year delay to the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework, to figure out whether there is a method of assessing impact which is sound and which is acceptable to the academic community. This longer timescale will enable HEFCE, its devolved counterparts, and ministers to make full use of the pilot impact assessment exercise which concludes in the Autumn, and then to consider whether it can be refined. “

At the moment, though, the views of the Treasury are as important as the views of the Minister. It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that, for all the subtlety with which RCUK and HEFCE have defined the many dimensions of impact, the Treasury is interested in only one type of impact – money. This sounds more straightforward, but it’s still not easy – we need for a robust evidence base for the assertion that spending on research yields tangible commensurate economic returns.

It isn’t just in the UK that these arguments are being carried on. In the USA, for example, the large injection of funding into science as part of the economic stimulus package have prompted the “Star Metrics” programme. In the UK, the Royal Society released in March last year an extensive study – “The Scientific Century” – which marshalled the evidence for the returns on investment in publicly funded R&D (concentrating on science, medicine and engineering).

Even in this restricted domain, the complications of the routes by which public investment in research produce returns become apparent. There was, for many years, a clear consensus in western countries about the way in which the value of publicly funded science emerges. This consensus originates in an enormously influential document written by the US science administrator, Vannevar Bush, in 1945 – “Science: the Endless Frontier”. This is the document that led to the foundation of the USA’s National Science Foundation. It encapsulated what, to many people, has become known as the “linear model of innovation” – the idea that pure science, curiosity driven and carried out without any consideration of its end-uses, would be converted into national prosperity through a linear process of applied science and technological development. Of course, the impact agenda, as conceived by the research councils, is in direct contradiction of this world-view – and since this view is deeply ingrained in many parts of the scientific community, this accounts for the deep-seated unease in those quarters that the RCUK view of impact gives rise to. And, if it were that simple, surely the measurement of past impacts would be straightforward?

However, the linear model is now very much out of fashion – it is considered by many to be neither an accurate picture of how research has worked in the past, nor a desirable prescription for how research ought to work in the future. To return to our current Science Minister, it is clear that he doesn’t believe it at all. In his July speech, he said: “The previous government appeared to think of innovation as if it were a sausage machine. You’re supposed to put money into university-based scientific research, which leads to patents and then spinout companies that secure venture capital backing….The world does not work like this as often as you might think…. There are many other ways of harvesting benefits from research. But the benefits are real”.

One of the most influential critiques of the linear model came in a came in a book by Donald Stokes called Pasteur’s quadrant. This argued that the separation of basic research from considerations of potential applications which is made explicit in Bush’s picture didn’t always correspond to the reality of how research has been done. There have certainly been scientists who have carried out fundamental investigations without any thought of potential use – Niels Bohr is the example Stokes used. And, as Bush argued, sometimes very practical applications do in fact emerge from such work. There have been technologists who have focused solely on the need to get their inventions to work and to market, without a great deal of curiosity about the fundamental underpinnings of those technologies – Thomas Edison being a classical example. But a scientist like Louis Pasteur carried out fundamental research – in his case, laying many of the foundations of modern microbiology, while at the same time being motivated by the very practical considerations of how wine ferments and milk sours.

On Stokes’s diagram, which has two axes defined by the degree to which considerations of use and fundamental interest motivate research, we have three quadrants typified by the approach of Bohr, Edison and Pasteur. What occupies the fourth quadrant, where the work is characterised by being neither fundamentally interesting nor practically useful? In the past this undesirable quadrant hasn’t had a name, but I propose to call it “Cable’s quadrant”, after the UKs secretary of state for Business, Innovation and Skills, who said in a speech on 8 September last year “there is no justification for taxpayers money being used to support research which is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.” Of course, no-one sets out to carry out research of this kind; the question is how to minimise the chance of research turning out this way without the risk of discouraging high-risk research that, if it did succeed, would be truly transformative.

There remains an unanswered question in Stokes’s formulation – who decides what is practically useful? Is this simply a matter of what has commercial applications? In the context of UK publicly funded research, this must be related to the broader question of who we, in Universities, work for. Universities are independent and autonomous institutions, so while they must respond to the immediate demands of their funders, they must always be mindful of their enduring sense of mission. How can we resolve this tension? One idea that might be helpful is the notion of “public value”, as applied to science policy in a pamphlet from Demos – The public value of science”. But it should be clear that the drive for research councils, in particular, to move beyond criteria for “good science” that are entirely defined by scientists, on the basis of their own disciplinary norms, to judging science on the basis of what are perceived as the needs of the nation, will present some severe problems of its own, which I will perhaps discuss in a later post.

Three things that Synthetic Biology should learn from Nanotechnology

I’ve been spending the last couple of days at a meeting about synthetic biology – The economic and social life of synthetic biology. This has been a hexalateral meeting involving the national academies of science and engineering of the UK, China and the USA. The last session was a panel discussion, in which I was invited to reflect on the lessons to be learnt for new emerging technologies like synthetic biology from the experience of nanotechnology. This is more or less what I said.

It’s quite clear from the many outstanding talks we’ve heard over the last couple of days that synthetic biology will be an important part of the future of the applied life sciences. I’ve been invited to reflect on the lessons that synbio and other emerging technologies might learn from the experience of my own field, nanotechnology. Putting aside the rueful reflection that, like synbio now, nanotechnology was the future once, I’d like to draw out three lessons.

1. Mind that metaphor
Metaphors in science are powerful and useful things, but they come with two dangers:
a. it’s possible to forget that they are metaphors, and to think they truly reflect reality,
b. and even if this is obvious to the scientists using the metaphors, the wider public may not appreciate the distinction.

Synthetic biology has been associated with some very powerful metaphors. There’s the idea of reducing biology to software; people talk about booting up cells with new operating systems. This metaphor underlies ideas like the cell chassis, interchangeable modules, expression operating systems. But it is only a metaphor; biology isn’t really digital and there is an inescabable physicality to the biological world. The molecules that carry information in biology – RNA and DNA – are physical objects embedded in a Brownian world, and it’s as physical objects that they interact with their environment.

Similar metaphors have surrounded nanotechnology, in slogans like “controlling the world atom by atom” and “software control of matter”. They were powerful tools in forming the field, but outside the field they’ve caused confusion. Some have believed these ideas are literally becoming true, notably the transhumanists and singularitarians who rather like the idea of a digital transcendence.

On the opposite side, people concerned about science and technology find plenty to fear in the idea. We’ll see this in synbio if ideas like biohacking get wider currency. Hackers have a certain glamour in technophile circles, but to the rest of the world they write computer viruses and send spam emails. And while the idea of reducing biotech to software engineering is attractive to techie types, don’t forget that the experience of most people of software is that it is buggy, unreliable, annoyingly difficult to use, and obsolete almost from the moment you buy it.

Finally, investors and venture capitalists believed, on the basis of this metaphor, that they’d get returns from nano start-ups on the same timescales that the lucky ones got from dot-com companies, forgetting that, even though you could design a marvellous nanowidget on a computer, you still had to get a chemical company to make it.

2. Blowing bubbles in the economy of promises

Emerging areas of technology all inhabit an economy of promises, in which funding for the now needs to be justified by extravagant claims for the future. These claims may be about the economic impact – “the trillion dollar market” – or on revolutions in fields such as sustainable energy and medicine. It’s essential to be able to make some argument about why research needs to be funded and it’s healthy that we make the effort to anticipate the impact of what we do, but there’s an inevitable tendency for those claimed benefits to inflate to bubble proportions.

The mechanisms by which this inflation takes place are well known. People do believe the metaphors; scientists need to get grants, the media demand big and unqualified claims to attract their attention. Even the process of considering the societal and ethical aspects of research, and of doing public engagement can have the effect of giving credence to the most speculative possible outcomes.

There’s a very familiar tension emerging about synthetic biology – is it a completely new thing, or an evolution of something that’s been going on for some time – i.e. industrial biotechnology? This exactly mirrors a tension within nanotechnology – the promise is sold on the grand vision and the big metaphors, but the achievements are largely based on the aspects of the technology with the most continuity with the past.

The trouble with all bubbles, of course, is that reality catches up on unfulfilled promises, and in this environment people are less forgiving of the reality of the hard constraints faced by any technology. If you overdo the promise, disillusionment will set in amongst funders, governments, investors and the public. This might discredit even the genuine achievements the technology will make possible. Maybe our constant focus on revolutionary innovation blinds us to the real achievements of incremental innovation – a better drug, a more efficient process for processing a biofuel, a new method of pest control, for example.

3. It’s not about risk, it’s about trust

The regulation of new technologies is focused on controlling risks, and it’s important that we try and identify and control those risks as the technology emerges. But there’s a danger in focusing on risk too much. When people talk about emerging technologies, by default it is to risk that conversation turns. But often, it isn’t really risk that is fundamentally worrying people, but trust. In the face of the inevitable uncertainties with new technologies, this makes complete sense. If you can’t be confident in identifying risks in advance, the question you naturally ask is whether the bodies and institutions that are controlling these technologies can be trusted. It must be a priority, then, that we think hard about how to build trust and trustworthy institutions. General principles like transparency and openness will certainly be helpful, but we have to ask whether it is realistic for these principles alone to be maintained in an environment demanding commercial returns from large scale industrial operations.

What does it mean to be a responsible nanoscientist?

This is the pre-edited version of an article first published in Nature Nanotechnology 4, 336-336 (June 2009). The published version can be found here (subscription required).

What does it mean to be a responsible nanoscientist? In 2008, the European Commission recommended a code of conduct for responsible nanosciences and nanotechnologies research (PDF). This is one of a growing number of codes of conduct being proposed for nanotechnology. Unlike other codes, such as the Responsible Nanocode, which are focused more on business and commerce, the EU code is aimed squarely at the academic research enterprise. In attempting this, it raises some interesting questions about the degree to which individual scientists are answerable for consequences of their research, even if those consequences were ones which they did not, and possibly could not, foresee.

The general goals of the EU code are commendable – it aims to encourage dialogue between everybody involved in and affected by the research enterprise, from researchers in academia and industry, through to policy makers to NGOs and the general public, and it seeks to make sure that nanotechnology research leads to sustainable economic and social benefits. There’s an important question, though, about how the responsibility for achieving this desirable state of affairs is distributed between the different people and groups involved.

One can, for example, imagine many scientists who might be alarmed at the statement in the code that “researchers and research organisations should remain accountable for the social, environmental and human health impacts that their N&N research may impose on present and future generations.” Many scientists have come to subscribe to the idea of a division of moral labour – they do the basic research which in the absence of direct application, remains free of moral implications, and the technologists and industrialists take responsibility for the consequences of applying that science, whether those are positive or negative. One could argue that this division of labour has begun to blur, as the distinction between pure and applied science becomes harder to make. Some scientists themselves are happy to embrace this – after all, they are happy to take credit for the positive impact of past scientific advances, and to cite the potential big impacts that might hypothetically flow from their results.

Nonetheless, it is going to be difficult to convince many that the concept of accountability is fair or meaningful when applied to the downstream implications of scientific research, when those implications are likely to be very difficult to predict at an early stage. The scientists who make an original discovery may well not have a great deal of influence in the way it is commercialised. If there are adverse environmental or health impacts of some discovery of nanoscience, the primary responsibility must surely lie with those directly responsible for creating conditions in which people or ecosystems were exposed to the hazard, rather than the original discoverers. Perhaps it would be more helpful to think about the responsibilities of researchers in terms of a moral obligation to be reflective about possible consequences, to consider different viewpoints, and to warn about possible concerns.

A consideration of the potential consequences of one’s research is one possible approach to proceeding in an ethical way. The uncertainty that necessarily surrounds any predictions about way research may end up being applied at a future date, and the lack of agency and influence on those applications that researchers often feel, can limit the usefulness of this approach. Another recently issued code the UK government’s Universal Ethical Code for Scientists (PDF) – takes a different starting point, with one general principle – “ensure that your work is lawful and justified” – and one injunction to “minimise and justify any adverse effect your work may have on people, animals and the natural environment”.

A reference to what is lawful has the benefit of clarity, and it provides a connection through the traditional mechanisms of democratic accountability with some expression of the will of society at large. But the law is always likely to be slow to catch up with new possibilities suggested by new technology, and many would strongly disagree with the principle that what is legal is necessarily ethical. As far as the test of what is “justified” is concerned, one has to ask, who is to judge this?

One controversial research area that probably would past the test that research should be “lawful and justified” is in applications of nanotechnology to defence. Developing a new nanotechnology-based weapons system would clearly contravene the EU code’s injunction to researchers that they “should not harm or create a biological, physical or moral threat to people”. Researchers working in a government research organisation with this aim might find reassurance for any moral qualms with the thought that it was the job of the normal processes of democratic oversight to ensure that their work did pass the tests of lawfulness and justifiability. But this won’t satisfy those people who are sceptical about the ability of institutions – whether they in government or in the private sector – to manage the inevitably uncertain consequences of new technology.

The question we return to, then, is how is responsibility divided between the individuals that do science, and the organisations, institutions and social structures in which science is done? There’s a danger that codes of ethics focus too much on the individual scientist, at a time when many scientists often rather powerless, with research priorities increasingly being set from outside, and with the development and application of their research out of their hands. In this environment, too much emphasis on individual accountability could prove alienating, and could divert us from efforts to make the institutions in which science and technology are developed more responsible. Scientists shouldn’t completely underestimate their importance and influence collectively, even if individually they feel rather impotent. Part of the responsibility of a scientist should be to reflect on how one would justify one’s work, and how people with different points of view might react to it, and such scientists will be in a good position to have a positive influence on those institutions they interact with – funding agencies, for example. But we still need to think more generally how to make responsible institutions for developing science and technology, as well as responsible nanoscientists.

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.

Science, Engineering and Innovation Summit at the Royal Society

I’ve been at the Science, Engineering and Innovation summit at the Royal Society this evening. This was an attempt to build on the reports on science and innovation published before the election (as discussed my last post) with the new government. It was a packed meeting, involving just about anyone in the UK with any interest in science policy. Here are my notes, as taken at the meeting. My apologies for any inaccuracies, and to anyone in the questions whose name I didn’t catch.

Martin Rees welcomes a packed audience – David Willetts is late.

James Wilsdon takes the chair.

Aims – an opportunity for the new minister to set out the direction of travel in the new spending round, and to make sure the weighty set of reports published before the election are not forgotten about.

Martin Taylor – (Chair, The Scientific Century)

The recent election saw science with a higher profile than usual, partly as a result of the many reports we’re talking about it. Of course science was still marginal, but our key arguments did register. This is partly because of the uncertainty we’re in – we anticipate tempestuous times. The next spending review will be the most important for a generation, setting national finances on an even keel but setting the tone for many years to come. There is a lot that unites the flurry of reports about science we’re talking about – one common theme is the need for stability. Three big themes in the Scientific Century. 1. Science and Innovation must be at the heart of any strategy for economic growth. 2. UK science is a marvellous asset for the UK, but there is a new global competitive environment for science, with major new investments in France, USA and elsewhere. 3. If we don’t continue to invest, we’ll lose our place at science’s top table.

We must show the new government how science and engineering can help the government both overcome immediate challenges and their long term aspirations. There will be difficult decisions ahead – the Royal Society is ready to offer help and advice. But short-term decisions must not undermine the ability of science to help meet the long term global challenges we face, and the health of the nation.

John Browne (President of Royal Academy of Engineering, ex CEO of BP, author of forthcoming Browne review into the financing of higher education).

What can be done to retool the British economy for growth and innovation? We’re the worlds 6th biggest manufacturer, with leading areas in sattelietes, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and design led manufacturing. But we don’t always turn ideas into business. Decisions about budget cuts must be made with an eye on the future. Businesses remain the main vehicle for wealth creation, but governments can help. This isn’t about picking winners, but supporting strategic sectors. Seven areas should be concentrated on:
1. ensuring we have the people with the right skills
2. keeping ideas flowing by funding the best researchers – then a debate about what other research we can afford
3. systems to bridge the gap between science and the market
4. stable environment with stable regulatory framework
5. incentives for small and large companies
6. government’s influence as a customer, with public procurement used as a tool for innovation
7. all the above to be put into a coherent framework, measured and assessed
Government doesn’t have to do everything – national academies, professsional scoeities etc. are ready to help.

We must all take a firmer lead to communicate the excitement of science and engineering and the careers it leads to.

Janet FInch – (Chair, CST Vision for UK research)

The CST report had one headline message – the UK’s research is a great success story but it’s under threat because of global competition. This is the most important message, for the scientific community, to government and to business. The “Rising above the gathering storm” report from the USA made this point strongly in the US context, emphasising the growing importance of China. So the UK’s strong position has been admirable for last decade but we can’t assume it will stay there. What we need to do is:
1. Government should adopt a clear long term vision – we need stable policy and stable policy directions – particularly to encourage private sector investment. In the current environment attracting private sector investment is going to be crucial, but we need government funding for upstream research, creative discovery based research across a range of disciplines (including social sciences).
2. We need to invest in people is important, more than projects. This includes both home grown people and attracting the best from abroad. We can’t predict the future, but if we have the best people they will adapt and respond to new challenges as they arise.
3. We need an ambitious innovation strategy which is directed at major global and social challenges. There need to be more incentives for collaboration, both in the UK and internationally. OUr highly competitive funding environment has served us well, but we need to balance competition with collaboration. This country is always going to be small compared to major world economies so we need to bring people together.

Hermann Hauser (Amadeus Capital Partners, author of Hauser review)

Let me make the case for Maxwell centres. The UK is second only to the USA in producing quality papers, in in papers per pound we’re number one. But we don’t use this excellence in research well to make new companies and to make our large companies more successful. It used to be the case that researchers produced papers, then industrial scientists read them and a few years later might do something with them. But things aren’t so leisurely any more, and it’s a race to commercialise new ideas. The Americans are derogatory about Europe using too much state support, but DARPA is a gigantic government support mechanism for Silicon valley. ITRI in Taiwan, the Fraunhofers in Germany, and others have all created new industries and supported existing ones. Fraunhofers have funding split 1/3 state, 1/3 private sector, 1/3 project based, and this is a good template.

In what areas should we establish a few such centres in the UK? Three criteria:
1. market size billions to 10’s of billions
2. demonstrable academic lead
3. a plan to keep most of the value in the UK – though we do need to recognise that in a global environment there will be international partners.

We should set up a small number of such centres, each funded at a level of 100 million over ten years, and we should support them with government procurement.

(David Willetts arrives)

Iain Gray (CEO, Technology Strategy Board)

A thought inspired by the portrait of Darwin: It’s not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one can adapt to change.

Science and research produces the ideas for the future, and the exploitation of these ideas produces the innovation that provides economic growth. Innovation is the key to recovering from the recession, and many countries across the world are investing heavily in this area.

Key points – the TSB budget is tiny compared to the government procurement budget – this is a huge opportunity for driving innovation. The low carbon vehicle program is an exemplar of somewhere where strategic investment can help overcome some of the big challenges society is going to face. Nissan’s investment in the UK was because of the science budget and the support for innovation. Other examples of strong businesses – the Satellite business, with new business models. Ceres power, through support in innovation got a key contract with British Gas. Innovation is crucial to economic growth. Regenerative medicine could be a game-changer for UK plc.

We need to provide the right ammunition to get the arguments across that innovation is what’s needed for the short and long term growth of the UK economy.

Helga Nowotny (President, European Research Council)

Research – Innovation – Education: the knowledge triangle is still valid, but we see some adjustments taking place. Innovation becomes the flagship of the plans for Europe – but Europe needs changes to increase the speed with which discoveries are taken to market. We know how to do this. We need
1. the spirit of entrepreneurship both inside and outside academia – intellectual property, venture captial, and public procurement. Less often talked about: every technological innovaiton needs social innovation. Not all innovaiton is based on research. But the kinds of innovation that will take us further are science based. As de Gennes has said, “By improving the candle, we are not going to invent electricity”.
2. So to research – the ERC will continue to be driven by excellence, bottom-up approach, the researchers know best. The UK is very successful in the ERC – the UK is a winner, but so is Europe, because this develops healthy competition and a raising of standards of evaluation right across Europe. The ERC trusts in people and their talents – but we need the third arm of the triangle.
3. Education begins long before the University. Many countries have a leaky pipeline of talented youngsters, so in the national context this pipeline should be fixed.

We hear a great deal about the grand challenges, of energy, climate, etc. There is one grand challenge that needs to be addressed first – how to integrate the three arms of the knowledge triangle.

David Willetts (Minister for Science and Higher Education)

I think fondly of a visit to the RS a couple of years ago when Martin Rees let me handle first editions of Principia and Origin of Species. This is the excitement of science which we should never forget. I’m not the only minister here – Pauline Neville-Jones (Minister for Security) is also in the audience.

I have dual responsibility for Universities and Science – I think this is a very exciting connection. What does this imply for dual support system? Firstly it means there is clear responsibility – the research councils can’t pass off responsibility to HEFCE, and vice versa.

Impact – Martin Rees is eloquent on some of these issues. Most academics do hope for and aspire to work that has an impact – researchers in medicine want to make a drug that will save lives, if you are a historian you hope your work will change the percpetions of the nation. The issue, then, isn’t impact per se – we all agree that research needs impact, but the “impact agenda”. I am wary of clunky attempts to measure and fund impact through the REF, and the impact agenda needs to be methodologically sound and commands widespread research. Blue skies research is still very important.

Innovation – this is often wrongly reduced to R&D. Coming from Birmingham, I start with Joseph Priestley and the Lunar Society. I would like to apologise retrospectively for the Tory riots in 1792 that burnt his house down! He discovered oxygen, but Lavoisier created the theoretical understanding, and the Swiss man Schweppes that made money out of it! I find the concept of the cluster a valuable way of thinking how innovation arises, much better than the sausage machine idea where science goes in one end and innovation comes out the other. We need low risk environments for doing high risk ventures. One idea for strengthening the cluster agenda is the idea of reproducing the Fraunhofers – I am struck by the similarity of Hauser and Dyson recommendations. Of course money is tight and some people will say you shouldn’t be thinking about making new institutions, but this is a very important area that I will be studying carefully.

Universities – Browne’s report on making the sector financially sustainable is very important , and the European agenda is very important here. Important arguments in Landes’s book – “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” – point to the diversity of Europe compared to the monolithic nature of China as important in promoting innovation in Europe. Looking at the UK’s Nobel prize winners, so many of them had a moment of crisis or disjunction, moving disciplines or moving cultures. These shocks can create true intellectual greatness.

Questions now:

Imran Khan CASE – two key messages – it would be a false economy to cut support for science now, and we need a long-term plan

Someone from Imperial – medical research will die unless we pare back regulation

Alan Thorpe (CEO, NERC) – There’s much evidence on the economic benefits to the UK show factors like 15 in returns to the economy, many case studies on innovation deriving from fundamental research. Research Councils are proud of their “excellence with impact” theme. Is our evidence persuasive? What else should we do?

David Willetts – the evidence is powerfully set out. The absorbtive capacity of the economy allows you to benefit from advances around the world. There is a cash constraint, and that means that some things that are desirable are not affordalbe. I will make the argumetns about the role of science in the economy and civilisation. But I won’t be a shop steward – I understand the argumetns ane will do my best to convey them. I am here to learn from the panellists, and to serve this community.

Martin Taylor. Please put science and innovation at the heart of you plans for the economy – the figures for foreign investment, money coming in with foreign students. Please develop a plan for science that has ambition and vision, and give them stability.

Mary Phillips, UCL. Pleasing to see the role of social sciences highlighted – Ss and arts and humanities shouldn’t be neglected.

David Cope, POST. You emphasised diversity at the European level. But you can scale this down to the national level. Diversity is important, but this is in tension with concentrating resources on

James Woodhouse. You were much less robotic than your predecessors – would you favour research on robots in the home and the hospital. What is your attitude to nuclear power, and will you spend more money on carbon capture.

ANO. Food security – estimates that we will need lots more food, but I don’t see a new green revoution on the way,

DW. A common thread through these questions – the argument of John Beddington that there are a set of global challenges from which we are not exempt. We are dumping serious problems on the next generation (see the Pinch!) but we have a repairing lease on the planet. The resource that scientists offer is invaluable. We must revisit agricultural research, energy is crucial, robotics – Japan is instructive as robots seem to be their solution to the ageing population. And social science is very important – these challenges are about human behaviour. And I won’t say anything in the middle of a spending review about allocations to different institutions!

Janet Finch. The global challenges are getting much more severe; as China and India grow, we need to see much more collaboration between universities and this is much more important than having a debate about concentrating funding.

John Browne. The review on HE is taking public evidence this week – one question is trying to understand the difference between a set of world class institutions and a world class system. Carbon capture and storage will be debated for too long and action will be smaller than we expect. It’s a possibility but as cost and scale mounts alternatives will intervene. The discovery of unconventional natural gas will defer the need for CCS.

Hermann Hauser. You should have as much diversity as possible when it comes to blue sky research, but for exploitation there are only a few sectors in which the UK can be world-class.

Mark Walport. When times get tight the temptation is to slash and burn. we must maintain excellence at critical mass. we need a stable poslicty enviornment if industry is going to innovate. With all hte talk of big society, you don’t have a stable environmnet – that needs strong central

Chi Onwurah (Labour MP for Newcastle Central). I am a chartered engineer, Parliament at least is the most diverse environment I have worked in, having been a (black, female) engineer for the last 20 years. We need to attract a very wide range of people into science. How can we attract less well-off people to professional jobs like this?

Joyce Tait (Edinburgh) Enormous opportunities for innovation in life sciences if we can adapt the regulatory environment – a small change in the regulatory system could yield big benefits.

Helga Nowotny. Diversity is a source of creativity. But as Hermann says you have to look at what stage you mean. But diversity can turn into fragmentation. We need more gender diversity – more women in science and those we have don’t leave. we have a majority of female students, but many leave as the postdoc lifestyle demands mobility and insecurity inconsistent with family life. Too much measurement means that people become cynical and learn the rules of the game, at the expense of creativity. For the ERC we see a growing number of applicants. 14% is the fraction of women professors/advanced grant holders, but things are better for younger women.

Iain Gray. The Big Bang science fair brought many underprivileged children to be involved in Manchester. Regulation is a hugely important area. Maybe there are some special factors in Scotland we could look at.

DW. Stable policy environment – we are trying to operate on the basis of a strong coalition government to last five years. The PM made it clear that he didn’t want to reorganise Whitehall – so we have an opportunity to provide stability. I agree about diversity. On regulation, let’s have some concrete proposals. Many exciting discussions about the difference between risk and hazard and the regulation thereof remain!

Science in the British election

It’s now clear that our election has produced no winners, least of all science. But it’s worth reflecting on what’s worked and what’s not worked in the various efforts there’ve been to raise the profile of science in an election that, in the end, was always going to be dominated by other issues.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering did a great job in extracting statements about science from each of the main parties, which have been published on their excellent blog The Science Vote. The New Scientist blog The S Word has been another excellent source of information and commentary on the campaign to raise science’s profile in the election. Predictably, the parties commitments to science have been notably short on detail, particularly on commitments to maintain current levels of science spending, but it’s progress even to have some warm words.

The background has been set with a few heavyweight reports earlier in the year. In March, the Royal Society released its contribution – The Scientific Century (I was on the advisory group for this, which was a fascinating experience), while the Government’s own highest level advisory body, the Council for Science and Technology, produced their own Vision for UK Research (PDF). Three big themes emerged from these reports; the excellence of the UK science base and of the best individual researchers within it, the importance of science and technology for economic growth and our future prosperity, and the need for science to solve the pressing problems the whole world faces, of dealing with climate change, moving to a low carbon economy and keeping a growing population healthy and fed.

Predictably, it has been the economic argument that’s gained the most political traction; the Labour government produced the Hauser review, calling for translational research centres along the lines of Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes, and the Conservatives have their Dyson review, with remarkably similar conclusions. Though the emphasis of both of these contributions is on near-market research, they both at least pay lip-service to the importance of having a strong science base.

We shall see, of course, how much these warm words translate into action. One has to worry, after an election campaign in which all sides have conspicuously failed to confront the really hard choices that a government will face in dealing with a deficit, that the science budget is going to be seen as a soft target, politically, compared to areas such as health, education or defense.

Is there a significant constituency for science, that might impose any political price on cutting science budgets? This election has seen high hopes for social media as a way of mobilising a science voting block – see #scivote on Twitter. Looking at this, one sees something that looks very much like an attempt to develop an identity politics for science – the idea that there might be a “science vote”, in the way that people talk (correctly or not) about a “gay vote” or a “christian vote”. There’s a sense of a community of right-minded people, with leaders from politics and the media, and clear dividing lines from the forces of unreason. What’s obvious, though, is this strategy hasn’t worked – a candidate standing on a single issue science platform ended up with 197 votes, which compares unfavourably with the 228 votes the Monster Raving Loony Party got in my own, nearby constituency. And Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat science spokesman and #scivote favourite, lost his own seat.

I think that science is much too important to be treated as a sectional interest; identity politics will never work for science, simply because a serious interest in science for its own sake will only ever be shown by a minority. Instead, support for science must be built from a coalition of people with many different interests and outlooks. For some the intrinsic wonder of science will be enough to strongly support it, but for many others it will be the role of science in the economy, the appeal of medical research or the importance of science for making the transition to a low carbon economy, that persuades them to take the subject seriously.

My congratulations to Dr Julian Huppert, elected Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge. He’s a research scientist in the Cavendish Laboratory, who will now have a little less time to spend thinking about theoretical biophysics, and a bit more time worrying about science policy, and, I’m sure, many other pressing issues.