If Osborne wants growth, he must protect science and our universities

The huge cuts to laboratories and equipment have already undermined the UK's world class science base.

Britain’s long-term prospects for economic growth could be seriously damaged today if the Chancellor announces further cuts to the funding for scientific research in the Spending Review. Three years ago, he froze the overall budget for research projects and made huge reductions in the amount to be spent on laboratories and equipment, undermining the UK’s world class science base in universities. One of the implications of the attack on science funding for the UK’s competitiveness became obvious earlier this month when we were overtaken for the first time by China in a key international league table showing the proportion of national wealth that is invested in research and development. According to provisional figures from the OECD, total R&D spending by China in 2011 increased to 1.84 per cent of its gross domestic product, up from 1.76 per cent the year before, while UK expenditure fell from 1.80 to 1.77 per cent over the same period.

It is particularly ironic given that the government has this month hosted the annual summit of the G8 nations, which previously was a gathering of the world’s biggest economies. The UK now lies fifth among the G8, behind Japan, the United States, France and Germany, in terms of annual expenditure on research and development, and well below the average for the 28 Member States of the European Union.

Some may question whether it really matters that our competitors are investing more in R&D than us. After all, the input of funding does not guarantee the quality of output in terms of products and services that drive economic growth. But a review of data from 19 countries published by the OECD earlier this year concluded that productivity growth is linked to R&D and patenting.

The decrease in UK investment in research and development is partly due to the reduction in government funding, which fell slightly from 0.58 to 0.57 per cent of GDP between 2010 and 2011. But the relatively low level of the UK’s R&D spending is not only due to declining government support for science. The private sector in the UK also invests less than its counterparts in other countries. This is largely because of the dominance of businesses in the services sectors, which traditionally do not carry out very much in R&D. The latest breakdown shows that the financial and professional services sectors, including banking, insurance, accounting and management consultancy, provided 14.5 per cent of UK GDP in 2011, up from 13.5 per cent the previous year, a much higher proportion than in any other G8 country, including the United States.

The coalition has acknowledged that the UK’s future competiveness depends not just on our traditional strengths in areas such as financial services, but also requires the nurture and growth of new knowledge-based businesses and industries. The Coalition Agreement promised to "create a fairer and more balanced economy, where we are not so dependent on a narrow range of economic sectors". And its ‘Plan for Growth’, published in March 2011, laid out an ambition for the UK to not only remain the world’s biggest centre for financial services, but also to become a global leader in, for example, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and low-carbon energy. Such sectors depend fundamentally for their success on research and innovation, and the government can create an environment that is conducive not just by offering the right financial incentives, such as tax credits for R&D, but also by ensuring a strong and healthy research base, particularly within universities.

Britain gave birth to the modern scientific revolution in the 17th century and its glittering list of international prize winners is evidence of our excellence in basic research. Most recently, Sir John Gurdon shared the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology for his early outstanding work on the potential of stem cells, which provided the basis for today’s exciting pursuit of promising new treatments for many serious diseases and illnesses.

In a speech at the Royal Society last November, George Osborne acknowledged that "the sheer quality and range of scientific enquiry ... is one of our nation’s greatest achievements in which we can take real pride", and noted that "the quality of our scientific research base is one of the most significant factors encouraging international companies to bring high-value investment here". 

But the coalition is now sapping this strength, not just through underfunding, but also by its clumsy drive against immigration which is discouraging talented overseas researchers from coming to the UK to study and work.

With countries like China and other developing countries now emerging as economic powerhouses, and investing more in the development of their own knowledge-based economic sectors, UK universities can no longer expect to automatically attract the best and the brightest from around the world. So it is crucially important that the Spending Review boosts the UK’s future prospects for prosperity and growth by increasing research funding for our outstanding universities.

An original copy of The Origin of Species which forms part of 'The Royal Society: 350 Years of Science' exhibition is displayed in front of a portrait of Charles Darwin. Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.