Science is absolutely vital to our future in every sense. Not only does research and development lay the foundations for economic success, allowing us to compete and prosper in an increasingly competitive world, but it also promises us greater health and wellbeing through medical breakthroughs, such as cures for cancer and heart disease.
Science is an investment in the future, which is why I was so gratified when just two weeks’ ago I took part in a Parliamentary Q&A session for Voice of the Future 2016.
The audience was made up of young scientists and engineers and their penetrating questions to me – on issues ranging from dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases to whether there should a sugar tax to combat obesity to increasing the participation of women in STEM subjects – spoke of an enthusiasm for science among young people which was infectious and inspiring.
Of course, we have long punched above our weight in science. The fact is that the UK is very good at research. With only 0.9% of the global population and 3.2% of global R&D expenditure, the UK still has 4.1% of global researchers, and 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited research articles.
This standing is also reflected in our ability to secure research funding from the EU. According to a recent ONS report, the UK contributed €5.4 billion to EU research and development over the period 2007 – 2013 while receiving €8.8 billion in direct EU funding for research, development and innovation activities.
The EU helps UK universities to pursue cutting edge research. New figures show that nearly 1,000 projects at 78 UK universities and research centres receive funds from the ERC and would be put at risk if the UK were to leave the European Union.
We gain in other ways too. The EU makes working across borders easier for UK and European researchers, who are able to pool their knowledge, infrastructure, data and resources.
But for all the prestige of British science, and for all their success in leveraging European funding, everything in the garden is far from rosy. The fact is that we are falling further and further behind our competitors when it comes to investing in research and development.
Ministers in BIS spoke out about protecting the £4.7 billion science budget in the Comprehensive Spending Review, in the face of cuts elsewhere. But this disguises the reality which is that this is only 0.49% of GDP, and it palls in comparison with our competitor nations. For example, UK government spending on R&D is the lowest among the G8 countries.
This is why The Royal Society has called for it to be raised to 0.67%, which will match the OECD average. The CBI has gone further and argue that it should be doubled.
It is not just a problem of public money, of course. British industry spends less on research as a share of GDP than France, Germany, the US and China, all of whom are increasing their commitment to science and technology.
In their recent report, the Science and Technology Select Committee warned of the risk to competitiveness, productivity and high value jobs of low level investment and have proposed that combined public and private R&D investment should rise from around 1.6% to 3% of GDP.
The Government has a role in leveraging such private funding as it knows all too well. BIS Minsters have rightly quoted the fact that for every £1 spent by Government secures £1.36 of private investment and raises productivity by 20%. But so far they have been silent on the need to raise investment.
In their response to the Science and Technology Committee’s report, the Government point to Innovate UK, which encourages research-industry partnerships. This is a good idea, but turning £165m of grants into loans the Government has simply created additional risks for researchers which will be counter-productive. It is not surprising that both the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses have raised concerns.
What is missing from the picture is a roadmap. We cannot simply rely on the historic prestige of British science anymore. We need a real plan that recognises the need to secure the kind of funding already enjoyed by our economic competitors, one which entwines both public and private investment. Without such a roadmap we will lose our cutting edge.