A guest post from our intern - David Gibson
Last Thursday, I attended a lecture by Prof Brian Cox at the Royal Geographic Society. The event was the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture in aid of Save the Rhino International. Besides conserving endangered pachyderms and trying to explain Life, the Universe and Everything is 90 minutes, he concluded with why it is important to fund science.
The rate of return for scientific research is unpredictable and scientists rarely know exactly where experimentation will lead them. Cox quotes Sir Alexander Fleming as saying ‘When I woke up just after dawn on Sept 28th 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic’.
But the rate of return is typically significantly high. Cox makes the point that those ‘pointless’ Apollo missions have so far returned their initial investment fourteen times over in terms of GDP generated for the US economy. By some estimations (again, estimations, not calculations), the £3.5b the public spends each year injects £45b into the UK economy.
The picture for the UK is not disastrous. Research and development in the private sphere remains respectable and recent OECD figures show that UK government support of private sector R&D was roughly on level with other developed countries. In 2008, we had a slightly above average figure for the proportion of researchers (8 per 1,000 workers) and proportion of science and engineering students (23% of all new degrees). With the Coalition deciding to freeze research and development, the current total R&D budget stands at £4.6b per year.
This may all sound rosy but this is a global economy we now live in where the challenges to stay ahead of our competitors has never been greater. In terms of spending by GDP, the UK is below the OECD average. The Campaign for Science & Engineering in the UK notes that many countries have increased research funding as part of their stimulus packages. China has increased its funding by 8%, the US by 5.7% and Australia by 25%. Despite the Coalition ring-fencing research spending, capital spending is set to decrease by 35% and inflation will see a decrease in real terms. It seems a question of priorities - Cox irreverently points out that we’ve spent more bailing out our banks in recent years than we’ve spent on science since the birth of Jesus.
In Britain today, we all spend a lot of money educating science students through school and onto PhDs. Unemployment rates for science graduates are around 10% and many postgraduates emigrate overseas to chase jobs and funding, swelling the coffers of foreign nations instead of our own. One area where the UK has been contributing economically rewarding research is the pharmaceutical industry yet in the face of global competition, companies like GlaxoSmithKline are making significant cuts.
I don’t want to be an Ed Miliband, attacking government spending and proposing no alternative. I understand full well that every pound spent must be taken from somewhere if the UK is to show credible action on deficit reduction. But today we are seeking to restructure our economy to something more sustainable. Given the wealth creation science and technology generates, are there not some idle assets that can be sold, leased or liquidated to reinvest where they are more useful? Perhaps it is better expressed in the words of Lady Thatcher, speaking to the Royal Society in 1988: “The value of Faraday's work today must be higher than the capitalisation of all the shares on the Stock Exchange!
”Research funding today is unlikely to pay off in the immediate term. It may not find your cousin a job (unless they’re a scientist, of course); it may not refill your parents’ lost pension fund; it may not reinstate RAF bombing capacity to knock out some of Gadaffi’s air defences. But more funding now will, in time, remould Britain back to a rich, proud and progressive nation that we’d like our children and grandchildren to live in. And after the legacy our reckless indebtedness has left them, shouldn’t we be planning a little ahead as we restructure our economy?