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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.

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.

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.