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In a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, Barack Obama is expected to announce a $100bn package to expand research and development tax credits for companies that invest in innovative technologies. This is the latest signal of intent from a president who last year pledged “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history”. Others have followed the US lead: France, Germany, Brazil and China are all prioritising science and research as vital to their strategies for economic recovery and growth.
So it is depressing that, at a time when Britain’s international competitors are investing more, the debate in London is all about how far and fast budgets can be cut. A few hours before Mr Obama speaks on Wednesday, Vince Cable, the UK secretary of state for business, will set out his own vision for the future of science and innovation.
Shortly after the general election, Mr Cable announced a new mission for his ministry as the “department for economic growth”. On Wednesday, he has an opportunity to spell out what this means. Science, like all areas of public investment, is under threat, and the business secretary needs to present a compelling case to the Treasury to ensure that the UK’s prospects for recovery are not jeopardised by short-term cuts, whose consequences could prove irreversible.
Science is a UK success story: we are world leaders by some measures, and second only to the US by others. This success has been achieved in spite of a smaller investment – public and private – than our competitors’. Even after a period of sustained growth, we are still investing only 1.79 per cent of gross domestic product on research and development. This is below Germany (2.54 per cent) and the US (2.68 per cent) – not to mention fast-developing countries such as South Korea (3 per cent).
The financial crisis has not prevented the US from proposing a 7.2 per cent rise in its science budget. Nor has it stopped Germany from investing an additional €18bn ($23bn) in the next five years or France from investing a further €35bn. China continues to make 20 per cent year-on-year increases in its research investment.
Britain is the only country outside the US with several universities in the premier league. High-technology industries cluster around them. Cambridge, for instance, is the base for billion-pound companies such as ARM, Autonomy and CSR, as well as hundreds of smaller start-ups.
It is crucial that short-term austerity should not undermine our science and innovation capability. Global competition for the most talented individuals, the most innovative companies and leadership in high-tech sectors is intensifying. Cuts would create the impression that UK science is in relative decline and make the UK a less attractive location for mobile talent and investment. They would send a message to the UK’s young people – savvy about trends and anxious about their future – that the UK is no longer at the cutting edge of science. Talent attracts talent, success breeds success.
I am fortunate to know many leading scientists of the older generation – Nobel prize winners or the equivalent. Their work was unpredictable and required a supportive environment. Breakthroughs can take many years and the lineage of a “spin-off” can be traced back to a surprisingly diverse range of influences.
The best academic research should be supported across the board. Stringent prioritisation may result in the UK losing out on nascent opportunities, which often occur serendipitously. But when it comes to the development phase, “picking winners” is essential and the government has a role, as emphasised in recent reports by Hermann Hauser and James Dyson, in improving a weaker link in our system – the translation from research to commercial exploitation.
It is frequently emphasised in these pages that without confidence, there will be no willingness to invest, and can be no recovery from recession. But it is not solely in the economic sphere that this is so. Confidence and optimism drive creativity, innovation and risk-taking in science.
The US and our other international competitors have set the bar. Today we need Mr Cable to demonstrate real leadership in spelling out a long-term strategy for UK science and innovation. It could be the most important speech for a generation, or an admission of defeat.
The writer is president of the Royal Society