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Scientific standing, once lost, is hard to regain

Martin Rees

Science is a UK success story. We are, by most measures, second only to the US in the quality and impact of our research. This success has been achieved despite a smaller investment—public and private—than our competitors. Even after sustained real-terms growth under the Labour government, we are still investing only 1.79 per cent of GDP on R&D, well below Germany, the US and fast-developing countries like South Korea and China.

There is intensifying global competition for the most talented individuals, the most innovative firms and leadership in hi-tech sectors. The UK has had some ‘brain gain’ in recent years—talent attracts talent; success breeds success. But even to maintain our relative standing, we need to raise our game. We’re less attractive, relative to the US, than we were in the Bush era. If public funding for UK science is perceived to be heading downwards when it’s rising elsewhere, it will become far harder to attract mobile talent and our brightest young people will look for careers elsewhere.

It is in the UK’s interests to support real academic excellence right across the board. This is affordable even in these straitened times. It would be ironic if a government that was traditionally unwilling to ‘pick winners’ in industrial policy were to aspire to make such judgements at the less-predictable research level. Stringent prioritisation may cause the UK to miss new economic opportunities, which often occur serendipitously at the interfaces of traditional disciplines. And we need breadth, both to provide ‘absorptive capacity’ so that the UK can seize on ideas from the rest of the world, and to sustain top-rate university education across all subjects.

In the UK, publicly funded research is concentrated in universities. That is also true in the US, but not in Germany or France. It’s no coincidence that we are the only country outside the US to have several universities consistently near the top of global league tables. The research universities are national assets because of their attraction for global talent, the collective expertise of their faculty and the consequent quality of the graduates they feed into all walks of life. Hi-tech industries cluster round them.

But some changes are needed. Enrolment in full-time higher education has risen from less than 10 per cent in the 1960s to around 40 per cent today. But this expansion hasn’t been accompanied by greater diversity. It is wrong for all our universities to adopt the traditional UK model. The three or four-year honours degree is not appropriate for all today’s students. Like the wider world, the educational environment is changing and we must recognise, for example, the importance of mature students and the trend towards distance learning.

For research, we should encourage grouping of universities, particularly to create more viable graduate schools. Concentration needs to go further, not just as an economy measure. But such proposals tend to ring alarm bells in academia. Will it lead to an entrenched superleague of universities? It need not. The concentration should be at the level of a single subject area. Obviously, a few universities are strong overall, but there are world-class departments or schools in numerous others. It is good news that the Research Assessment Exercise uncovered these ‘islands of excellence’ in many departments across the entire university system.

We should welcome the formation of groups of departments collaborating on PhD-level education, as the Scottish universities’ physics departments have done. In big science projects there is already widespread use of shared facilities. Bibliometric data show that an increasing number of papers have authors from several different institutions and, often, different countries.

Science is the engine that will drive economic recovery. There is relief that it hasn’t been cut more. Yet in a global context, even the present situation is precarious. It will be crucial how the apportionment among research councils is handled. There are few areas where this country is as high as number two in the world. So we shouldn’t risk jeopardising any that remain—especially when they are vital to our long-term prosperity.

Retaining our scientific standing, with the economic and social benefits this brings, is crucial. Regaining it would be cripplingly expensive—and probably impossible as other nations, including those of the Far East, are forging ahead. We need a 10-year framework for

science: a road map offering hope that, after four years of declining real-terms funding, science can share the fruits of the recovery that it should help to generate.

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Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, addressed the Research Fortnight event From Recession to Recovery at the British Museum on 3 November.