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David Willetts: 'Science for growth'

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News


UK Science Minister David Willetts says government backing for research makes good economic sense.

In his first major speech on science at the Royal Institution, Mr Willetts told his audience that he wanted to give researchers more room to innovate.

He would not be drawn on the scale of future funding, however, stating only that investment decisions had to wait on the outcome of a spending review.

But he said he was positive about what science could contribute to growth.

"The challenge we face is to make best use of our science base," he told the Royal Institution.

"Especially in a time of austerity, we inevitably think of the way it can contribute to economic growth. I strongly believe that contribution may come best if we encourage openness and innovation, not if we try to micromanage our universities, direct researchers or count patents.

"If we get the environment right, the evidence is overwhelmingly that scientific research can contribute to economic growth."

Debt-driven boom

Under the previous Labour government, the science budget doubled in real terms.

This made the UK second only to the US in terms of the quality of its research, according to some measures.

This is a factor which draws many hi-tech companies to base themselves in the UK.

But Mr Willetts said the country was now suffering the fall-out from a debt-driven boom and that the coaltion was faced with difficult decisions.

"These are austere times for us all," he said. "But this government wants science to emerge from this period to be strong, sustainable and effective. [Business Secretary] Vince Cable and [Chancellor] George Osborne both understand the key role of science, technology and innovation in rebalancing the economy."

He said he wanted to break the labour "sausage factory" that he claimed placed too much emphasis on achieving direct, measurable impacts from research. Instead, he said, he wanted to give scientists more space to come up with brilliant ideas.

Quite how much money Mr Willetts will have to drive forward his policy approach remains to be seen. Government departments are drawing plans to cut their budgets by 25%.

Waiting game

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case), said that it was "great that Mr Willetts recognised the importance of science".

"But the likely cuts are contrary to what other countries are doing, even now in these hard economic times. The US, France and Germany are all increasing their investment in science and technology because they recognise that it is their way out of the recession," he said.

Mr Khan argues that the UK is already lagging behind its competitors.

"In 2007 the UK government spending on R&D was 0.55% of GDP. For Germany, it was 0.71%, for the USA 0.77%, for France 0.81%. The UK should be trying to catch up, not fall further behind," he commented.

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