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Science for Science’s sake

29 Sep 2015

Catherine Johns, Innovation and Business Growth Director at Business Durham, Vice-Chair of the United Kingdom Science Park Association and International Board Director of the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation, on the upcoming Spending Review

The upcoming spending review has meant that we have all had to re-examine our assumptions on this score. Ordinarily, I am a strong believer in science for science’s sake but, in really debating whether the science budget should be protected, it has become clear that there are many other reasons for doing so.

It’s not just that science is a source of wonder and inspiration and an expression of what makes us, us. It’s not simply a case of “because it’s there” or perhaps going to Mars because “it’s what’s next” (as Aaron Sorkin memorably once had a character say). It’s not even because we are pretty much the envy of the world in terms of our science base.

Perhaps far more prosaically, science, technology, engineering create jobs. Millions and millions of them, mostly paid more than average.

Approximately 20% of Durham’s economy is manufacturing – the latest shining example, Hitachi Rail Europe, recently played host to both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor at its grand opening. All these jobs depend on scientific discovery at some point.

Two of our most successful companies at the North East Technology Park are making products that bring peace of mind and huge improvements to quality of life to millions around the world. They are commercialising scientific discoveries from decades ago to create high tech, engineering and manufacturing jobs now. So when CaSE asked me what would be the impacts of a cut to the science budget I replied that I didn’t know – we set up NETPark to help these kinds of companies to have significant economic and social impact but we didn’t know exactly which companies we’d help or which scientific discoveries would be commercialised.

Protecting the budget for fundamental science means new companies and new high value jobs in the future. Many private sector success stories are built on public investment: Apple is living proof of this. It has one of the lowest R&D budgets in its sector yet has created over 80,000 jobs and transformed our world by integrating several, publicly funded scientific discoveries, “All the technologies which make the iPhone ‘smart’ are also state-funded … the internet, wireless networks, the global positioning system, microelectronics, touchscreen displays and the latest voice-activated SIRI personal assistant”, notes Mariana Mazzucato. And, as highlighted by David Connell, Vodafone was created as a spin out from Racal, a start-up company built on wireless technology contracts for the Ministry of Defence.

In many ways, the history of transformative innovation is actually the history of public sector intervention and its commitment to being bold and taking early-stage risks because the private sector wouldn’t. But taking these risks enabled the creation of millions of private sector jobs in entirely new markets. The science budget is such a risk and a bold commitment to our future prosperity. It must be protected.

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