The UK could be relegated from the “Premier League” of scientific nations if it fails to invest heavily in scientific research, the Royal Society has warned.

The national academy of science has issued its starkest warning yet of the fate that could befall the country’s science standing if investment shrinks after the general election.

The report from the society’s The Fruits of Curiosity inquiry aims to convince politicians that science spending should grow rather than decline in tough times.

Sir Martin Taylor, former vice-president of the Royal Society and chair of the group that produced the report, said UK science was currently world class.

“But without the right kind of funding we could lose our Premier League status and get relegated,” he said. “Putting it bluntly, we are a bit like Manchester United, but if we are not careful we could end up a bit like Leeds United [a third-tier football club].”

The report warns of the rise of China and India and notes the scientific stimulus packages that governments around the world are putting in place, urging the incoming government to use the UK’s strength in science to fuel economic recovery and drive growth.

The report, The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity, also suggests that research councils should rejig funding to focus on “people” rather than on pre-defined projects and programmes and says it is a “myth” that the UK is good at science but bad at exploiting the results. The report was compiled by a team which included former science ministers Lord Sainsbury and Lord Waldegrave.

It distils two urgent messages. The first is the need to place science and innovation at the heart of the UK’s long-term strategy for economic growth. The second is the fierce competitive challenge we face from countries which are investing at a scale and speed that we may struggle to match. So we should:

Put science and innovation at the heart if a strategy for long-term economic growth;

Prioritise investment in excellent people;

Strengthen Government’s use of science;

Reinforce the UK’s position as a hub for global science and innovation;

Better align science and innovation with global challenges;

Revitalise science and mathematics education.

On the latter point, the report recommends that incentives are put in place to attract specialist science and maths teachers back and there should be a commitment to increase the number of Primary science teachers. And that new expert groups should  be set up to advise  on science  and maths curricula and qualifications . The report concludes that specialist science and mathematics teachers are essential and that Science and mathematics education have “suffered from buffeting by political interference and  piecemeal reforms”

It comes as the British entrepreneur Sir James Dyson published advice this week to the Conservative Party on how to improve innovation.

His report, Ingenious Britain, (March 2010) argues that while the UK excels at university-based research, little blue-skies research is shared or used commercially by UK companies. The government should seek to reform how universities are funded and assessed in order to give them flexibility to provide what students and companies want, it says, recommending options such as shorter courses with industry experience.

Contradicting the Royal Society report, it says: “With a few exceptions, we are not world class at taking ideas out of the university and into the market.” included in the  report’s recommendations are: are:

* Cultural change, to develop high esteem for science and engineering, including a major national prize scheme for engineering and commitments to ‘grands projets’ such as high speed rail and nuclear power.

* Changes at university level to encourage more young people to choose science and engineering degrees, including: industry scholarships and greater freedom for universities.
* Changes in the way knowledge is exploited, so the UK becomes world class in taking the best new ideas out of universities and onto the market.

* Changes to improve financing for high tech start ups and a government guaranteed business loan scheme to encourage more lending by banks to innovative businesses.
* Refocusing R&D tax credits on high tech companies, small businesses and new start ups, and delivering on ambitions to deliver 25% of procurement and research contracts through small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Sir James has called for Government money to be channelled into science education. His suggestions include better pay for science, technology and maths teachers to attract more higher-calibre staff. He has also called for better support in universities and particularly for graduates. One suggestion is to provide engineering undergraduates with industry-sponsored scholarships of £2,000 each. Another is that post-graduate research students should have their pay increased from £13,000 a year to £23,000 a year.

Royal Society Report


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