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Why it’s time for us to spend big on science

In his recent party conference speech, Science Minister David Willetts said he was ‘up for’ making Britain the best place in the world to do science. But in order to do that – and reap the economic rewards – politicians need to be prepared to spend big, argues Professor Brian Cox.

  • This blog post is an edited transcript of Prof Brian Cox’s Faraday Lecture at the Royal Society in February 2013.

The famous earthrise picture of Apollo 8, taken in December 1968, has had a powerful, emotional, political and scientific influence.

The Apollo programme is an interesting one to study. The common misconception is that Apollo was extremely expensive, concerned with the Cold War glorification of America, didn’t have much value, and ended at the right time.

But a 1971 study by the Midwestern Research Institute found that $25bn (in 1958 terms) had been spent on civilian space R&D in the 1959-69 period, which returned $52bn to the US economy. It was estimated the total value to the economy would reach $181bn by 1987, representing a 7:1 return. Other studies have put the return on investment as high as 14:1.

These finding are controversial and are argued about by social scientists. But what is beyond debate is the positive economic impact of R&D and basic research on a country’s economy and wider society.

Dr Hendrik Casimir was a famous theoretical physicist, who went on to become research director of Philips. He appeared before the US Department of Commerce Committee in 1966, an era when the US was spending lots on R&D and scientific exploration. On being questioned on the value of spending money on science he said;

“I have heard statements that the role of academic research and innovation is slight. It is about the most blatant piece of nonsense it has been my misfortune to stumble upon. I think there is hardly an example of 20th century innovation that is not indebted to basic scientific thought.”

The excellent Science and Technology Research Unit at University of Sussex produce many reports for the government on the effectiveness of R&D investment. In one of their reports on the benefits from publicly funded research, they make a point that politicians seem to struggle to understand;

“Any attempt to assess and quantify the economic and social benefits from publicly funded research is beset by problems. In other words, it is very difficult to measure and come up with numbers about the benefits from investment in R&D. But it is clear that our current, technological civilisation, knowledge-based economy is built upon it.”

The UK’s spend on R&D as a percentage of GDP is extremely low. I raised this in 2009 with an MP and pointed out this was pathetic and a reason for embarrassment. They replied that the UK would soon be moving up the table, as the government had ring-fenced the science budget and reduced GDP. This is one approach, but not the way I would do it.

We don’t spend a lot by international measure, indeed by any measure, on research and development of science in our economy. However, we are extremely good in terms of what we do with the money we get.

But given the declining investment in science over the years that I have been a scientist, should we be pessimistic or optimistic about science here in the UK?

There are many signs we should be extremely optimistic indeed. Since 2008, UK physics applications to universities have been rising steadily and at Manchester we have seen the same trend. It’s positive, it’s optimistic; we are getting more applications even in a difficult funding environment.

By international standards, we are superb at research in the UK. A Royal Society report called The Scientific Century shows that with three per cent of the population and one per cent of research funding, eight per cent of world’s scientific papers are produced in UK, along with 12% of all scientific papers and 14.5% of all highly cited papers.

We are an efficient scientific nation, by some measures the most efficient, and we are also excellent. The reason for this is down to our scientific heritage but also the excellence of our universities. But we must now increase our science spending, because it is one of the UK’s best industries, if not the best.

Higher Education and science costs virtually nothing in terms of total government spend. In figures for 2011-2012 put together by the Guardian, out of a total spend of £694.89bn, science funding was £5.6bn, while funding for HE was £13.5bn – both down on the previous year.

Government figures show that 43% to 44% of our GDP comes from knowledge-intensive services and industry, which rests on funding for the areas outlined above. So science is not only fundamental and inspirational to our civilisation, it’s also a rather good investment that underpins a big chunk of our economy.

Ahead of the next General Election, I’d like to hear a commitment – from any one of the party leaders – to double the UK’s R&D spend, restoring it to 1970s levels, and to introduce measures to make it attractive for industry to do the same. I’d also like to hear a commitment to double what we spend on Higher Education.

Costed out, this policy would increase public spending by about £20bn a year by 2020, adequately offset by economic growth.



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