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Denham calls for 10 Year Science Investment

10 Mar 2011

The CaSE 2011 Annual Lecture was given by Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, John Denham, and hosted by the Royal Institution.

John Denham MP, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, last night used his delivery of the CaSE Annual Lecture to say that:

“It’s essential that the forthcoming Budget sets out a clear framework for science funding well beyond the current spending period, and ideally for a 10-year period.”

The Campaign for Science and Engineering welcome his ambition. We believe that it is critical that the UK sets out a long-term strategy for investment in science and engineering.

We have to give researchers and investors the confidence that this nation will be a safe bet for science in the long run. Only by doing that can any Government genuinely claim to be putting science and engineering at the heart of their growth agenda.

CaSE also invited Andrew Purcell, a student from the Imperial College Science Communication Group and Editor of I, Science magazine, to write a summary of the annual lecture.

There is a real danger of the UK losing its leading position in world science.”

This was the stark warning John Denham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, gave in his speech last night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He also expressed concern at the government’s decision to abandon its commitment to a ten year strategy for science investment:

“Reverting to short-termism is bound to raise questions around the world about the UK’s long-term strategic commitment to science. It is essential that the forthcoming budget sets out a clear framework for science funding well beyond the current spending period, ideally for a ten-year period”.

Despite the stern nature of these warnings, Denham said he did not wish to spread “unnecessary pessimism” and went on to reel off a list of statistics highlighting the quality of British science: “we are the most productive science nation in the G8, per researcher, per public pound spent; the UK produces 12% of the world’s academic citations, with a 14.4% share of the top 1% most highly-cited papers, ranking second only to the USA in terms of world citation share; we have the second largest venture capital market in the world; first degree graduates from STEM subjects increased by 15% between 2002 and 2008; overall, the number PhD graduates also increased by 19% over the same period”.

Denham added to this:  “It remains the case that we have real strength in science and this is not going to be lost overnight. The opportunity to get things right will remain for some time, though not, perhaps, forever”.

What are the challenges?

So what are the challenges which need to be overcome in order for both scientists and politicians “to get things right”?

On funding, he had this to say: “the science community generally breathed a sigh of relief following the CSR [Comprehensive Spending Review] settlement in October…but real strains are already apparent”.

He went on to highlight the importance of looking at this settlement, not just in UK terms, but also in terms of how science in the UK is affected relative to its global competitors. He said: “Science has suffered less than other spending areas domestically, but the international perspective is very different. UK science investment is falling sharply in real terms, while most other countries, including those with sharp deficit-reduction programmes of their own, are increasing science investment in real terms: China by 8%, Germany by 7%, France by 1%, Australia by 25% and the USA by 5.7%”.

In terms of competing globally, the speaker also highlighted the importance of the UK being able to compete in attracting the top scientists, researchers and science students from around the globe.  An obvious barrier to this would seem to be the current visa issue, about which Denham had the following to say: “The visa issue has done enormous reputational damage to the UK, the message has gone round the world, ‘not welcome here’. And, even if the final policy is watered down, it will take some time for this damage to be undone”.

Labour’s record

This criticism of the current government’s immigration policy was quickly followed up by a listing of ways in which science benefited during the thirteen years of the previous Labour regime. Following this, Denham pre-emptively dismissed the inevitable accusations of him being overtly party-political on this matter by justifying the points he was making as a simple appeal to the audience’s “collective commitment to evidence-based conclusions”.

On the evidence of last night, it would seem that CaSE may have found a strong ally in Denham, who has demonstrated a subtle understanding the complex interplay between the myriad factors which affect the health of science and engineering in this country. With both he and Conservative Minister David Willetts recently showing firm signs of support for British science and engineering, perhaps now isn’t such a bad time to be a scientist in the UK after all.

Full transcript of John Denham MP’s speech at the 2011 CaSE Annual Lecture.


I was delighted by your invitation to give this lecture in what is CaSE’s 25th anniversary year.

Previous lecturers have included both distinguished science ministers and distinguished scientists. I’m flattered to be in their company..

25 years ago, before e-communication, Twitter and Facebook, a group of scientists got in touch by phone, letter and perhaps a few new fangled fax machines to place an advert in the Times to launch Save British Science.

In 1986, climate change was a topic of discussion only in the best informed scientific circles. (To be fair, ten years earlier when I worked for Friends of the Earth, some of the after work pub discussion was about speculative science papers about a greenhouse effect, but I won’t claim we were sure it was really significant).

I don’t recall the term globalization being widely discussed in political circles. My own party had only recently comes to terms with membership of the European Union.

The foresight and determination of the scientists who formed Save British Science helped to ensure that 20 years later we could be proud of Britain’s leading contribution to global research on climate change, and in establishing the UK’s leading position in global science

And, to anticipate my theme tonight, they helped establish the base from which we talk with confidence about our nation’s ability to earn our way in a competitive world.

It’s not just in the volume of world class scientific research on which we can claim progress.

There have been significant and largely positive developments in the understanding of the importance of science in our wider society.

The importance of science in its own right has become more widely accepted.

The importance of science in underpinning economic growth has become better appreciated.

The importance of science as an activity with an important role to play in determining the future of our wider society is more widely understood.

The understanding of the responsibility of scientists to contribute, openly and with humility to those wider debates about the handling of science and its conclusions has also developed significantly.

Of course the balance sheet is mixed.

At times it seems like every breakthrough of scientific insight is matched by an outburst of irrationality.

For every improvement in public engagement with science you can find evidence of a public distrust of science. For every influence of research on policy, you can find a politician reluctant to hear its message.

But overall the record is of progress.

Scientific advice is more deeply embedded in government departments.

The government backed Foresight programmes have shaped public debate and government priorities on a range of issues from ageing to obesity; from climate change to food security.

Independent advice, like the work of the Council on Science and Technology has helped to shape government priorities on infrastructure. Concepts like the resilience of public infrastructure, raised again this week by the Royal Academy of Engineering are no longer foreign to public policy discussions, even if their conclusions are not always followed through.

I like to think that the lessons of the disastrous impact of the MMR scare, or the deeply flawed public debates about the first attempts to introduce around GM foods, has forced more sophisticated approaches to public engagement with science.

Scientists have become more willing to see the explanation and popular communication of their work as a core responsibility of the researcher, not a resented burden.

And the importance of research to economic development has been more strongly articulated.

The expansion of world class scientific research has been accompanied by the development of new structures and institutions to make the most of the discoveries of fundamental science.

We meet when both science and the national economy are facing challenging times.

I will argue that we will need to draw deeply on all of the strengths we developed over the past twenty years if we are to make the right choices in the years ahead.

Understanding the importance of high quality science; understanding the relationship between world class scientific research and economic strength, and the engagement of scientists in the wider public policy debate will all be crucial and will need to be mobilized with as much determination and vigour as was shown by the original founders of Save British Science.

The cover of their first pamphlet quoted from a report to Sir Keith Joseph by the Advisory Board of the Research Councils.

‘Over the last five years the Government has reduced the level of investment… (In scientists and their research)….in real terms – against the trend in other developed countries’

The economic and social effects on the UK of this may not become obvious for a few more years.  However, we should warn the government that when they do they are likely to be grave and effectively irreversible’

Not a few people will share similar feelings looking at what we know of the Government’s plans for research.

It would be premature for the Campaign for Science and Engineering to revert immediately to ‘Save British Science’.

But nor should we be sanguine British science today; or its position in relation to developments in other countries which are, or which wish to be, science rich.

The Save British Science campaign was not, of course, immediately successful.

For many years overall government investment in science and research continued to decline.

It was only after the election of a Labour government in 1997 that the shortage of research funds began to be addressed.

I’m not making a cheap party political point.

Merely appealing to your collective commitment to evidence-based conclusions.

Labour had to start where we found things.

The SRIF programme tackled the accumulated backlog of under investment in facilities and equipment.

The ten-year commitment to invest in Science and innovation gave the research community the crucial longer term confidence in the development of science and engineering.

Under the leadership of David Sainsbury in particular, and Gordon Brown’s consistent backing.  Labour aimed for a broader revival in science and its role in wider society.

Concerted and partially successful efforts were made to halt the decline STEM students and strengthen science in schools. The UKRC began to promote the position of women scientists and engineers.

New links were built between the science base and its effective exploitation by a wide range of industries. The Higher education Innovation Fund enabled many universities to develop the capacity to encourage the effective exploitation of intellectual property.

New institutions – most notably and successfully the Technology Strategy Board – further strengthened the links between research and wider economic benefits. RDAs played an important complementary role.

And the Research Councils established a good balance between funding excellence where it is found and the need to focus on cross-cutting programs on the major issues, including the challenges of climate change and of an aging society.

The growing investment enabled the government and the science community to launch ambitious and expensive new research centres, like the Diamond Light source and the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.

Slowly Government began to turn its attention to the conditions needed for innovation, including the role of government procurement and innovative approaches to contracting.

Let me not overstate the case.

British science did well over this period. But no one would suggest that the job was done.

While the share of public research and development investment going into the research base increased significantly, the overall level of public investment in research and development had only returned, by 2008, to the levels enjoyed when Save British Science was launched in 1986. The increased investment in the research base was not matched by equivalent increases – and in some case continued decline – in the level of other departmental investment.

The measures used to underline the strength of British science are well known. Let me repeat some nonetheless.

We are the most productive nation in the G8, per researcher and per public pound spent.

The UK produces 12 per cent of the world’s academic citations, with a 14.4 per cent share of the top 1 per cent most highly cited papers, ranking second only to the USA for world citation share.

We have the second largest venture capital market in the world.

First degree graduates from STEM subjects have increased by 15 per cent from 2002/3 to 2008/9.

Overall, the total number of PhD graduates in STEM subjects has increased by 19 per cent from 2002/03 to 2008/09.

Surely the 2005 decision of Save British Science to re-name itself the Campaign for Science and Engineering was justified.

But where will we be tomorrow?  This audience will be familiar with the CSR settlement.

A flat cash settlement for the Science Budget and a 40% cut for research capital.

The science community generally breathed a sigh of relief at this settlement – mainly because it was also asked to plan for 10 and 20% reductions,. But real strains are already apparent.

The financial pressures of the science budget are growing, with higher inflation and increased VAT.

There are increasing pressures not least the cost of recently completed infrastructure projects which means, as the government admits, more of the budget will be required for operating costs, reducing that available for active research.

The funding bodies are already being forced to make difficult choices. ISIS will only be available for 120 days a year, for example.

The capital cut , means, surely, that after essential maintenance and repair – keeping the lights on and the roof watertight – there will be little for new investment prioritized by the Research Councils. (Although there may be some held back for high profile ministerial announcements)

There must be fears that the squeeze will be felt on the opportunities to nurture the next generation of researchers through postgraduate and post-doctoral opportunities.

The Commons Library estimates that Government spending on research in 2014-15 will be about 14% lower in real terms than in 2010-11.

That original warning from the Save British Science manifesto sounds all too prescient.

Today, as then, we must look not just at our own levels of spending but those of other countries.

In UK terms science has suffered less than other spending areas. The international perspective is very different. UK science investment is falling sharply in real terms while most other countries – including those with sharp deficit reduction programmes of their own – are increasing science investment in real terms.

China by 8%, Germany by 7%, France by 1%, Australia by 25% and the USA by 5.7%. There are major new players in world science from Brazil to Singapore, from the Gulf States to India

These trends have been observed by the European Commission Marie Geogrehan-Quinn who said last month

‘I think it is disappointing…that what is being done in France and Germany is not being replicated in the UK. I’m talking about France and Germany substantially increasing their investment in this whole area while at the same time that same increase is not happening in the UK.’

I believe there is a real danger of the UK losing our leading position in science.

What is more, the government has abandoned any commitment to a ten year strategy for science investment. Reverting to short-termism is bound to raise questions around the world about the UK’s long term strategic commitment to science.

It is essential that the forthcoming Budget sets out a clear framework for science funding well beyond the current spending period and ideally for a 10 year period. Our own policy review will look at how Labour would build on the record of the last government in providing support and certainty to science investment.

The consequences of these shifts in relative investment around the world are both more subtle and more serious than the simplistic idea that each nation gets the volume of the science it buys. .

British science may mark time over the next few years, enduring a backlog of underfunding in research facilities. Other countries, including those in the fast growing economies, are not standing still.

But in science, the ability to collaborate internationally is the lynch-pin of the ability to be competitive nationally.

Science has always been an international activity, with scientists showing a healthy disregard for national boundaries, seeking out the best to work with wherever they may be. That is ever more true today.

Not everyone who talks proudly of our record on citations appreciates that 40% of the papers result from international collaboration

National strength in science is integrally linked to the capacity to collaborate internationally. Declining budgets, and capital facilities on a care and maintenance basis undermine our capacity to collaborate on international projects and research programmes, and on our ability to attract the very best researchers.

A couple of years ago, as Secretary of State at DIUS, I was invited to lectures in the USA. I stressed the importance of international cooperation to national science strength.

After every lecture I was approached by American scientists who were faced by crude restrictions, introduced in haste following 9/1, on their ability to get visas for the best scientists who wanted to work in the USA. They envied the freedom and flexibility of their British colleagues and worried about the long-term damage that would be done to US science if the restrictions were maintained.

As they saw it, a purely political decision, based on scant evidence, was threatening the future of their science base.

I little imagined then that just two years later I would hear British scientists making the same complaint.

Last week, I brought together universities and FE colleges to consider the latest plans to restrict student visas.  Their evidence was compelling.

The Government wants export lead growth.

Here is an activity worth at least £5bn a year (and perhaps as much as £8bn at the current time). The global market is growing at 7% a year, and we have a global market share of nearly 12%. Yet the combined impact of the Home Office’s proposed measures could cut student numbers by 40%.

But what came across most strongly, was just how important overseas students are to the health and strength of universities themselves. They not only sustain key undergraduate courses from which all students benefit; at postgraduate level they form a vital part of the workforce and the research base.

The politically driven target to reduce net migration threatens the very activities which make our universities world class in the first place.

The sorry visa saga illustrates a wider problem: the signs that the new Government has too little understanding of the broader context in which science and research takes place.

There is a casual disregard as to how, where and by whom science is really done.

The visa issue has done enormous reputational damage to the UK. The message has gone round the world – not welcome here. Even if the final policy is watered down, lasting damage will have been done.

Much of our publicly and privately funded research takes place in universities.  Yet the debate about the funding of higher education has been conducted as though the university teaching is entirely separate from university research.

For working vice-chancellors, it is the health of the institution as a whole that matters; national and international reputations depend to a considerable degree on the strength of the research base.

This year growth and job creation should be everyone’s abiding concern.

Universities should have been urged to redouble their efforts to build links with industry and commerce, to accelerate the transfer of knowledge and expertise into the wider economy. Instead vice-chancellors everywhere are preoccupied by an unnecessary, unfair and unsustainable change in higher education funding.

Our national capacity to utilize fully the benefits of scientific research – in particular to underpin long term economic growth and build new strengths in our economy to reduce our over-dependence on financial services – is being neglected.

As a science graduate I would love to think that the expansion of science investment taking place around the world was driven purely by the sense of curiosity: the desire simply to understand, which is at the heart of science itself.

But of course it isn’t.

Investment in science and engineering reflects the belief of governments that a strong research base underpins technological progress and economic success.

In future, for this country as many others, investment in science and engineering, properly applied, must drive economic growth.  And the search for economic growth which must continuously re-make the case for investment in research.

Some will argue that these things, no matter how desirable, simply cannot be afforded due to the state of the economy.

But it was not Labour’s level spending, let alone our investment in science, which created the current problems. National debt was reduced between 1997 and 2006. And in 2006 we set out plans to cut the modest current account deficit over the next spending review period by growing expenditure more slowly than the economy as a whole. It was the global banking crisis, and the measures we took to stablise the banking system, protect families and to ensure early economic recovery which lie behind our current deficit. And while that deficit needs to be reduced, the government decision to reduce the deficit too quickly and too drastically in pursuit of the ideological vision of a smaller state that has ensured that the spending review has been harsher and more economically destructive than is sensible.

I worry that current government does not fully understand the connections between science, engineering and growth.

Fifteen  years ago, it was a common saw that we were better at fundamental research than we were at applying breakthroughs to new products and services and the encouraging the development of successful businesses.

Much of the blame was laid at the door of scientists seen as unwilling to dirty their hands by engaging with business.

Yet that turned out not to be true.

Investment in the capacity of universities and other research institutions to make full use of their intellectual property has paid off. Though, we hadn’t finished the job, its clear the barriers to successful exploitation of research lay more in the weaknesses of the institutions to support the process, than problems within the science community itself.

In future we must strengthen not than weaken the institutions which will enable us to make the most of our science and engineering base.

The closure of Pfizer’s main European research centre has a warning for all our advanced economy. Pfizer say it’s a global decision, not a reaction to a particular UK policy. That’s not reassuring; it makes the implications worse.

Life science is one of the knowledge based industries where we hope to compete. World class research has been well funded for years. The issues facing Pfizer itself and the changing nature of pharma research are complex.

But a leading company has looked at its worldwide activities and decided they don’t need to be in the UK.

Many top class scientists and engineers will lose their jobs, perhaps to go overseas, and the talent pool which can attract new investment will be diminished.

Global companies are not about to leave the UK on masse, but heed the warning.

It’s no longer enough to be a decent place to do business. Many countries will promise that.

We must ensure that the business environment is so good that no leading company can afford not to be here.

Global companies, global capital and global research and development are more mobile than ever before,

But global companies also want long term relationships, long term partnerships and long term security and certainty.

Winning our share of mobile global research and development investment, and our share of the production which follows, depends not just on short term fiscal policies but on the ability to offer the long term prospect that the UK will be able to offer the fundamental research, the skills, the commitment to the development of the next generation of technologies which makes the UK a must be there place for business activities.

Early indications of the Government’s long delayed ‘growth plan’ don’t suggest it understands how different aspects of government policy need to be aligned to make the best of our strong science and engineering base in building a strong economy for the future.

In this context it is a profound mistake to set investment in applied research and translation against investment in fundamental research.

Set against the timetables of major investment decisions by global companies, today’s fundamental research providers the basis for the applied activities of the future which will give us a competitive advantage.

Much debate about skills shortage is focused rightly on the continued expansion of apprenticeships and of graduates with appropriate capabilities.

But in many parts of the economy, it is the secure supply of scientists who have participated in cutting edge research which can actually offer the UK a competitive advantage.

Where we chose to invest our budget for fundamental research may be the most critical decision in determining our international competiveness for global business.

We need a vision and growth plan for each high value sectors which is critical to paying our way in the future – advanced, manufacturing, the digital economy, creative and cultural, business services and the low carbon economy.

All these sectors where we can hope to pay our way in the global economy are either directly based on science and engineering, or rely on platforms, or rely on platforms and infrastructure which are science and engineering dependent.

For pharma, tax and finance policy must reflect an industry where progress is now a partnership between giants and much smaller companies. The NHS should be the ‘we must be there’ factor offering a world class place for clinical trials. But key reforms like the electronic patient record were painfully slow and current changes will make the NHS a less welcoming environment for innovation and translational investment. In GSK has highlighted the importance of advanced manufacturing techniques to deliver new drugs in the much smaller volumes now required.

The UKCMRI will give us a world leading potential, but only if all elements of successful exploitation of fundamental and applied medical science are in place.

In Government Labour came a little late to understanding the complementary role of activist government policies and the development of successful science and engineering reliant private companies, but we made real progress..

The establishment, by DIUS, of the Office of Life Sciences in DIUS let pharma engage effectively with government. Driven by Paul Drayson it led to the patent box tax relief, NHS reforms and better finance for smaller companies. The Automotive Council and the Nuclear Forum played similar roles.

These fora which helped shape these policies may still exist, but Sir Richard Lambert’s recent cry of despair reflects frustration across industry that the drive and leadership has disappeared.

The much needed and long delayed growth plan must be more than a few cuts in tax and regulation.

All elements of government policy must be properly aligned. This may and usually does include investment in fundamental and applied research, support for the translational of new technologies into marketable products, the right IP regime for innovation, ensuring the financing mechanism from bank lending, public support, government contracts, and venture capital are in place and appropriate, and addressing strategic skills. It means recognising that government policy itself shapes markets and the opportunities for business by the approach government takes to procurement, regulation, planning; and strategic decisions on infrastructure, transport and energy policy. Competition policy can drive productivity and export promotion policies need to be tailored to support those same key growth sectors.

The institutional arrangements for finance, for regional development, for innovation policy, must be fit for purpose so that firms with the greatest capacity to grow can to do so.

I hope the forthcoming Budget will prove me wrong. But at present I see few signs the Government has been putting together the coherent and comprehensive strategies that are required to make the most of our opportunities in the science, engineering and technology based industries which are our only hope of paying our way in the world in the future..

The Government has pursued Labour’s proposals for Technology Innovation Centres, but the 124 applications for the first announced centre speaks to confusion rather than coherence. And the emphasis on establishing a small number of new TICs is in danger of obscuring the threat to existing centres which play a very similar role.

The North East Process Industry Cluster was created in 2004 by industry with the support of the 1NE, to help nurture the commercialisation of science and technology in the process industry.  NEPIC brought together educators, universities, global companies like Mitsubishi and small local start ups to help develop innovative ideas – like plastic that is not based on oil.  The Cluster has already delivered in excess of £3billion of investments. These include Ineos Bioethanol, PYReco Tyre Reprocessing, Air Products Syngas Facility and Mitsubishi Electric Battery Chemicals. The list goes on.

But with the demise of 1NE Nepic has been fighting to learn what funding will continue.

BIS has given it no direction.  Now it is making highly skilled staff redundant whilst the Government dithers on where and what the promised TICs will be

The closure of the regional development agencies takes with them the loss of the £440m which they spent on science related programmes.

With the demise of the RDAs we lose key regional skills and a policy of industrial activism to promote hi-tech industry and crucially the requisite supply chains.  We would not have resisted rationalisation and reform, but there is now a vacuum in regional policy making which the Government has been unable to fill.  The successful development of Daresbury as a national science and innovation centre in the North West owed a lot to the partnership between the NWRDA, universities inside and outside the region and the research councils.

While the TSB remains a shining light in innovation, the number of knowledge transfer partnerships – a successful initiative praised by Sir Richard Lambert – is to be reduced by around a third.

Taken together, these policies are damaging the country’s ability to deliver new business, products and services.

I don’t want to spread unnecessary pessimism.

We have real strength in science. It will not be lost overnight. The opportunities to get things right will remain for some time, though not forever.

In the future British science faces two challenges.

Firstly, to restate the case for government investment in science and engineering research, as the campaign to Save British Science did so effectively after 1986.

And secondly, to be actively engaged in ensuring that the products of scientific research are used effectively in coming years, playing a full role in rebalancing the British economy in those sectors which will rely most heavily on fundamental and applied science, and, more generally, ensuring that the full eight of the best research is brought to bear on public policy.

For my party, embarking on our review of policy before the next election, we can be proud of what we did in government, but must not claim we got everything right.

And we must work closely with the research community, and those who depend on its work, to understand that the world we will face in 2015 will be markedly different from the world we faced in 1997 and in many ways, much more difficult. We must make sure our future policies match up to those challenges. I look forward to working with CaSE and the wider science community as we do so.