Viewpoint: Science 'critical for UK economic future'

By Imran Khan
Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering

Image caption,
Imran Khan says that research has its own inherent value

In a Viewpoint article, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case) explains why he thinks Britain should invest in a high-tech, "knowledge-intensive" economy if it is to remain competitive in the 21st Century.

"Science will be essential as Britain rebalances its economy".

"Cuts in spending on science are likely to have important long-term consequences".

Those aren't the words of scientists, but the views of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), respectively.

Their voices add to a growing chorus of agreement that includes everyone from Cancer Research UK to the Confederation of British Industry; an agreement that investing in science and engineering is critical to the UK's economic future.

Of course, research has its own inherent value. It's the continuation of what we've been doing ever since we came down from the trees and decided to find out what was past the next hill, or what happened when we banged two rocks together.

To imagine a world without science and engineering is to imagine the past: a world without electricity, clean water, the internet, skyscrapers, antibiotics, or air travel.

But it is concern about the future that's driven over 35,000 signatures to the Science is Vital petition, and over 2,000 activists to descend on HM Treasury calling for sustained research investment.

'Value added'

The arguments are simple and plentiful.

The UK cannot compete on cheap labour or natural resources in the future. And we've seen that relying solely on the service sector is unsustainable. So we need to invest in a high-tech, knowledge-intensive economy - where it's all about the "value added" - if we're going to compete in the 21st Century.

Image caption,
Scientists recently held a rally and have signed a petition against the cuts

In 2007, the UK had a current account deficit of nearly £40bn - a measure of how much more we bought from abroad than managed to sell. But when it came to research and development, we turned a profit of £2bn, bucking the overall trend.

UK science and engineering are a global success story because of their reputation for excellence. According to the Royal Society, research that has been assessed as world class attracts around 90% of university science funding.

And it's only getting more competitive; success rates for scientists pitching for funding have halved over the past decade.

But while the UK is debating by how much it will cut research funding, our competitor nations like the US and Germany are increasing their investment. This is while they try to grapple with the same financial circumstances that we have, but also after years of having already outspent the UK; in the G7, only Italy spends less than us as a proportion of GDP.

Credibility problem?

The OECD has said that such cuts "may provide short-term fiscal relief, but will damage the foundations of long-term growth". And just as it's true that you could lose weight by having your brain removed, it still doesn't make it a great idea.

The real danger is that the government expects the science base to be maintained by the Big Society. The evidence to the contrary is clear, and straight from the horse's mouth, with organisations like the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry and the Wellcome Trust saying that it is public investment which incentivises their own operations.

Collapsing public investment in science could be followed by a reduction in private sector spending, and those two combined would mean that our finest researchers will begin new careers abroad.

With them goes our credibility - and there is no guarantee that we will get either of them back, especially with our competitors investing as they are.

George Osborne reveals his plans for research in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October. They are anxiously awaited not just by scientists and engineers, but everyone who wants a sustainable future for the UK.

In tackling the deficit, we can only hope that Mr Osborne has put research in the right pile: the one marked "Invest for Growth", rather than "Cut for Short-Term Gain".

Imran Khan is the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (Case)

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