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.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt