Launch of the Royal Society Report ‘The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity’

An event was organised this morning to launch the new Royal Society report ‘The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity’. The report brought together experts from politics, industry and science to assess the role of funding for scientific research in the context of the current and future economic situation.

Sir Martin Taylor FRS, chair of the report’s Advisory Group, outlined the issues relating to scientific funding at the launch. He emphasised that, in addition to being a world-leader in scientific research, the UK is also highly successful at exploiting research, through clusters of high-tech companies surrounding universities. However, the UK’s current advantage is being threatened by major investment in science by the US, China, India, France and Germany, in response to the economic downturn. Sir Martin Taylor used the analogy of a football league to describe the potential consequences for the UK of lack of investment in scientific research: relegation from the premier league would make it very difficult to return to former standing. He mentioned that the President of the National Academy of Sciences has warned that the best scientists will move to the US if UK investment in science is not maintained.

The purpose of the report is to ensure that the UK remains at the pinnacle of science, and uses this to support economic growth. The panel at the launch were asked in turn to highlight the most important aspects of the report, in their view. Dame Wendy Hall from the University of Southampton emphasised the importance of a revolution in information technology throughout the education system, business and research, to facilitate international and interdisciplinary research. Sir Martin Evans from Cardiff University highlighted the investment in people, especially fellowships to support early-career researchers. David Roblin from Pfizer recognised the importance of knowledge exchange between academics and industrial science, and the focus on global challenges. Lord David Sainsbury highlighted a key incentive for politicians to implement the recommendations of the report: increasing investment in science will promote growth which will create much-needed jobs. Lord William Waldegrave warned that the UK would lose foreign investment in scientific research if seen to be dropping behind, and he also backed the recommendation for a Chief Scientific Adviser in HM Treasury, which received strong support from the audience.

Robert Chote, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, pointed out that the case for support for science does not ‘tug at the heartstrings’, so extra efforts need to be made to convince politicians that investment in science is valuable and has significant economic benefits. The report comes at a key time for political consideration, in the run up to the election. This evening, science spokespeople from the main political parties will meet at the House of Commons for a debate entitled ‘Science and the General Election 2010’. The launch of the Royal Society report today coincides with the publication of a document by the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CASE) ‘Building our Future with Science and Engineering’, which urges politicians to develop coordinated long-term policies for science and engineering. A letter from CASE was published in the Times yesterday demanding that the party leaders articulate their policies on science and engineering.