BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for June 2010

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.


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...

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