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How long can science run without batteries?

11 Dec 2015

Gabriele Butkute, Science Policy Assistant at the Biochemical Society, looks as what the Spending Review has in store for science and engineering

Being less than a week away from the publication of the Spending Review, the science and engineering community is drowning in suspense and uncertainty. And let’s be honest, “A country that lives within its means” isn’t exactly an optimistic title for the document that will define the research and innovation atmosphere for the next five years.

There are plenty of figures out there, and discussed in previous CaSE blog posts on this theme, that show we are falling behind. The current world leading success of the UK science sector is based on a history of investment which may run out of steam quicker than we expect due to the threats of immigration limits and the productivity crisis putting additional pressure on the system.

How do we compare with other countries? Productivity in the UK has fallen further than the G7 average; France, which has a similar sized economy to the UK, outstrips our research investment by nearly 40%; and when we look further, we see that Eastern countries, most notably China, are putting pressure on the UK in terms of the volume of research. The accomplishments of the UK science community are astounding when it comes to research outputs and the quality of research institutions, but how long will that last if we don’t provided sustainable long term investment? Talk about batteries not being included

Sustainable funding (so called, batteries) is just one of the elements needed to have a thriving science sector, but it forms the foundation and instils trust in our infrastructure within the UK, as well as internationally.

At the Biochemical Society we focus on supporting the molecular biosciences, the area that has provided great advancements in science and healthcare and has a lot to offer in the future. An example of an exciting ongoing project within genetics is the 1000 Genomes Projecta collaborative initiative coordinated by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the UK and a number of prestigious research centres across the world. It is an ambitious effort to sequence 1000 genomes and produce a detailed catalogue of human genetic variation, which could then be used to study particular diseases.

In addition to helping us to understand many complex and devastating genetic disorders and giving us a better insight into human evolution in the UK, it is also a publicly available database. That means anyone anywhere can advance science and conduct further research based on the findings. This is just one of many exciting projects in the molecular bioscience arena that are currently taking place in the UK.

Commenting on the issue of the importance of continued investment in science, Professor Steve Busby, Chair of the Biochemical Society, said: “UK molecular bioscience has made an amazing contribution to the UK economy over the past 50 years in various fields, but there is much more to come as the DNA sequence revolution opens the gates to personalised medicine. Hence the business case for further investment is overwhelming and it would be short sighted to reduce investment at this stage. We urge the Government to realise the value of the UK science sector and provide it with sustainable financial support so that we make the best out of the talent in the UK and remain a world leader in science.”

These brilliant projects do not run on air (or promises, for that matter), they run on funding, excellent researchers and are supported by infrastructure. The point that often gets left out when we talk about the need for science funding is data analysis. All science and healthcare (molecular bioscience in particular) generate a huge amount of data. Once sequenced, one genome takes up around 1 terabyte (TB) but if we add all the information we could get from a patient including imaging, we could potentially have up to 50TB of data. That is more than we have received from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Demand for both big data skills and the technologies to support the amount of data coming in continue to grow. An increase in science funding would help to address this skills and technology gap and enable the continuing development of big data which underpins a lot of modern research.

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