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Can Science be an engine of growth in an age of austerity?

Susan Watts | 12:14 UK time, Friday, 25 June 2010

If you want to understand what it is that makes scientists excitable about their subjects, then take a trip to the See Further festival on the South Bank, which opens today.

It is a celebration of science, with some arty bits thrown in. At its heart is an exhibition in the Festival Hall of this year's pick of UK science that aims to stimulate and surprise.

The idea is that the strange flying penguins, versatile algae and blood from stem cells show us all not just how ingenious science can be, but also that seemingly esoteric ideas can lead to products that industry can sell. The penguins that "swim" over visitors' heads are an elegant fascination to some, fluid dynamics in the air to others, captivating to most.

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There is a distant echo of the 1951 Festival of Britain which shared the same venue, nearly 60 years ago.

That festival was supposed to be a glimpse of the future Britain might achieve as the nation emerged from the austerity years, after the Second World War. The scientists behind today's festival hope to achieve something similar. They hope to persuade us all that investing in science will help to secure the future prosperity of the UK.

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We spoke to James Dyson, who has his own story to tell of the dangers of neglecting science, in particular in our education system.

He wants to double the size of his research and development (R&D) centre in Wiltshire, to 700 people. But he can't find the 350 scientists and engineers he needs.

Just before the election Sir James wrote a report called Ingenious Britain for David Cameron.

He called for a rise in tax credits for companies that invest in R&D, and education reforms "to make Britain Europe's leading high tech exporter". But in the Budget this week he got only a promise that the Government will consult with business on the proposals in his report. Indeed the word science appeared only once in Tuesday's Budget speech - in the glossary. Engineering crops up only twice.

Sir James insists that he's not disappointed, but he is concerned that if we diminish the supply of UK science graduates through the spending squeeze on university science departments, then the drought in scientifically-trained recruits can only get worse.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering(CaSE) says spending on basic science is good value for money. It cites the finding that every pound spent on medical research from public or charity funds gives a return of 30p a year in perpetuity from direct or indirect GDP gains, on top of the direct gains of the research itself (Medical research: What's it worth? Estimating the economic benefits from medical research in the UK. MRC, Wellcome Trust & the Academy of Medical Sciences, 2008).

And it's an argument that other countries appear to have bought. Again according to CaSE, Finland and Korea responded to their economic crises in the 1990s by investing heavily in R&D while severely constraining public spending, helping to create strong knowledge-based economies (Policy responses to the economic crisis: Investing for long-term growth, OECD 2009).

Sir James, and those who think like him, have just a few months, between now and the autumn spending review, in which to make their case that the Government should back science - at its broadest definition, that is embracing technology, engineering, maths and innovation.

And they'll need to fight for every penny of public money they receive in grants and hidden support schemes. They're beginning to crank up the volume on their argument that science can be a new engine of growth to take the UK out of a new age of austerity.

The South Bank's celebration of science is timed to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society - the UK's national academy of science. The society, founded in the 1660, counts among its historic list of fellows Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Stephen Hawking. The argument over what science is for raged then and it rages still. In its Scientific Century document, published in the run-up to this year's election, the society argued that if the UK does not invest at levels that compare with our competitors then we risk losing our place as one of the world's leading scientific nations.

But more than that, the scientists and engineers the society represents are saying that if we lose the ability to wonder at science and the world around us, we will lose a lot more...

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Exciting article. Wish I was there.
    Sir James is concerned that if we diminish the supply of UK science graduates through the spending squeeze on university science departments, then the drought in scientifically-trained recruits can only get worse.
    Sir James I think would be among the firtst to agree that it’s not just the supply of science grads, but the supply of excellent, scientific grads with the scientific aptitude and scientific curiosity.
    I agree with Sir James that the squeeze on university science departments must never affect any student with the potential and the intellect. This is surely an area where scholarships should be generous. I mean - if you are lukcy enough to have ten students with the scientic attitude and the scientific intellect, but alas, not two cents to rub together: you give all ten scholarships…because in these gifted persons lies the future of scientific achievement in the UK.
    I agree 100% with the solutions of Finland and Korea (Policy responses to the economic crisis: Investing for long-term growth, OECD 2009). Accordingly, the UK should be looking at all demand occupations and ensuring that the demands get met. E.g. If there is a shortage of carpenters, you design methods to identify those with "carpenter" aptitude and you make sure they they get the necessary education. This will pay off in the long-run when the carpenter” is gainfully employed and paying taxes.
    But more than that, the scientists and engineers the society represents are saying that if we lose the ability to wonder at science and the world around us, we will lose a lot more...Yes, I agree, but you cannot restrict these insights to science & engineering. A country must have the foresight to know what occupations will be in demand and "stream" to ensure that the demand gets met.
    A brain - scientific, medical, occupational skill, etc. etc. - is a terrible thing to waste.

  • Comment number 2.

    We have not yet reached the point of necessity that fuelled innovation during WW2 , although my belief is that we will , as Oil Prices increase ; only then will the Risk - Reward equation come down in favour of what are curently considered to be outlandish technologies .

    Government Funding is restricted only to ' proven ' technologies . This risk averse position explains why financed solutions to climate change are limited ; to 19th Century wind technologies , Nuclear Power , that no resident in their right mind wants to live anywhere near , and to continued hopes for results in Wave Power , a technology that has still not been perfected , despite continual investment and PhD theses , ever since the 1970's . Blue Skies research does not exist in any form currently , with the exception of facilities like CERN .

    Unfortunately , as good as the Science from CERN may be , the exploration of subatomic particles is nothing more than navel gazing when considering the Peak Oil situation . The quantities of money poured into Sciences with no practical application are disgusting , especially when held up against Jimmy Carter's speech of April 17 , 1977 ( 34 years ago ) and considering that ignoring his authority then has led us to our collective culpability as consumers now , and to the Deepwater Horizon .

    Science has always been and will always be THE fuel for growth . Its only competitor , increased demand from higher or greedier populations may provide a skew however ; producing an unsustainable version , a predictable ' energy credit crisis ' upcoming . Were it not for Jethro Tull et al. we would all still live a pastoral and subsistence lifestyle and thus Sciences have been our growth . Science can however be misdirected , misused , become obsessed with itself or be exploited for the early realisation of profit by investors , regardless of knock on effects or the short sightedness of immediate Return On Investment .

    No one should approach the temple of science with the soul of a money changer ~ Thomas Browne

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes, I think we should target Science as our engine of growth.

    I am bitterely disappointed that my flying car and jet-pack are yet to materialise. Where are they?

    I have no robot slaves to do my housework, so have to rely on former politicans to do my dusting, and I would have thought that by now every man would have been able to exchange his wife for a Stepford model.

    Come on Science, get your act together.

    Joking aside, we did have a knowledge economy in IT that was very lucrative to HMRC until Brown decided to destroy it by a mix of punitive taxation - the infamous IR35 - and by a deliberate policy of swamping the UK with IT workers from India.

    Imagine that we do create a vibrant, dynamic Science sector now that brings in revenue to UK Plc - who is to say that a future Labour Government will not do exactly the same to Science as Labout did to IT?

    You know, all those Indian Billionaire owners of IT companies in Bangalore and Bombay attending Labour Party cocktails in Downing Street - mugs, the lot of us!

  • Comment number 4.

    Can Science be an engine of growth in an age of austerity?

    Blooming well hope so! Not like most of the other professions trusted to boost the economy have delivered too well.

    The problem may be the kind of science wanted and hence supported.

    Those in the politico-media establishment holding the purse-strings and sharing what people need to hear seem to be predominated by individuals whose grasp of science is either, um, nil, or if even a tad qualified well aware of what their paymasters like to hear.

  • Comment number 5.

    "We spoke to James Dyson, who has his own story to tell of the dangers of neglecting science, in particular in our education system.

    He wants to double the size of his research and development (R&D) centre in Wiltshire, to 700 people. But he can't find the 350 scientists and engineers he needs."

    Dear James,

    Have you considered advertising your vacancies? As a scientist currently seeking employment, I've had a pretty comprehensive view of the opportunities offered in the last eight months. So it's quite disturbing that I did not realise that you had a research centre, let alone a plan to hire 350 people.

    Try posting vacancies here:
    jobs.ac.uk
    New Scientist Jobs
    EuroScience Jobs

    I think you'll find the response gratifying, if not alarming in volume.
    Great hoovers, by the way.

    Best Regards
    Dinosaur

  • Comment number 6.

    In a more serious vein than my last post, I think we should be a little concerned that our most obvious R & D successes (reflecting the focus of the funders) are military aerospace and pharmaceuticals/medical, both of which lead to products largely bought with public money.

  • Comment number 7.

    It depnds how you define 'growth'.

    If you define growth in an economic sense the answer is a resounding NO.

    The current global economic model is past its sell by date.

    If by 'growth' you mean moving towards a more sustainable philosophically and emotionally mature humanity in tune with ourselves and the planet, then the answer is a resounding YES.

    However the later requires a global philosophical shift first..which we seem to further away from than ever.

    So which one is it Susan? What do you mean by 'Growth' ?


  • Comment number 8.

    "#1: Sir James is concerned that if we diminish the supply of UK science graduates through the spending squeeze on university science departments, then the drought in scientifically-trained recruits can only get worse."

    I don't think anyone who is currently completing a PhD, or a postdoctoral contract, is aware of any "drought in scientifically-trained recruits".

    Most, I would say, are much more aware of the drought in career opportunities which offer them anything other than another two or three years working for an established scientist and hoping that that scientist will be successful in the funding lottery, which might allow the junior scientist some continuity in their work.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hmm - eight comments (three from me) in four days. As evidence of a nation thrilled by science, and aware of its potential to drive new businesses and economic growth, this isn't terribly reassuring, is it?

 

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