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Prepare for impact: how can the UK remain ahead?

08 Nov 2016

Former BBSRC CEO and current CEO of BenevolentBio, Professor Jackie Hunter, offers a personal perspective on the areas the UK needs to focus on to remain a world leader in science in the future.

Science and engineering will have a huge impact on society and the economy over the next three decades – technology is changing so much that even predicting what the impacts will be over the next five to 10 years is difficult. The pervasive and rapid impact of mobile technology in diverse areas such as health care and farming is something few people recognised and the future impact of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles will be just as quick and prevalent.

In order to ensure that the UK not only continues to be a world leader in scientific research but also in its application to benefit society, there are three areas that government should focus on.

Firstly, people. Without the right human capital, the UK will not remain competitive in science and engineering. This needs to be joined up across the educational spectrum; from teaching curricula in schools that inspire and enthuse, to having access to relevant university graduate and post-graduate courses. There then needs to be the appropriate career structures in both academia, public institutions and industry, to ensure that graduates and post graduates in STEM subjects see the benefits of training for both themselves and society. Lastly, we need to have access to the best talent from all over the world – immigration policy, especially post-Brexit, must take this into account.

Secondly, infrastructure. Science and engineering are expensive subjects to teach at any level and educational institutions need to be financed in a way that enables the teaching of STEM subjects to be sustainable. Likewise, researchers in academic institutions need to have access to the best facilities, both in the UK and abroad. Policies and funding must be flexible to allow this access. In addition, incentivising collaboration with industry is also important but needs to be done in a way that makes the UK an attractive place for industry investment compared to other countries.

Finally, independence and inter-disciplinarity of STEM research funding. It is critically important that the UK retains a commitment to funding basic research. As Sir John Cadogan’s report for The Learned Society of Wales pointed out, blue-skies research underpins later success in applied research and innovation and gives numerous examples of the unpredictable down-stream impact of such research.

It is also urgent that, as highlighted by Sir Paul Nurse in his review of the Research Councils, the UK improves the way it funds research that cuts across discipline boundaries. In particular, it will be crucial to ensure sufficient funding is allocated to guarantee the social aspects of new technology development, and its implementation, are studied in parallel with the development of the technology. It is critical that whist the new UKRI funding body can achieve greater alignment across research areas and better inter-disciplinary funding, it must also be independent of government to allow funding of very basic, non-policy driven ideas. This independence would be best achieved by ensuring it has a Royal Charter, which is not currently planned in the Higher Education and Research Bill.

Government has a pivotal role in shaping the STEM landscape in the UK and ensuring we both continue to be strong in key areas where strength already exists, and have the ability to develop capacity and capabilities in new areas. In doing so it can shape the benefits that this can bring to society.

I am commenting from the perspective of someone who has worked in industry and academia, a former Chief Executive of a research council and a present and past governor of two universities but the views expressed here however, are my own.  

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