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Osborne launches tech challenge with £60 million for space

Chancellor ‘picks winners’ in major science speech

The UK government is to increase its budget to the European Space Agency by £60 million per year, the chancellor George Osborne announced in a widely-anticipated speech at the Royal Society in London on 9 November.

Osborne picked space technology as one of eight ‘general purpose technologies’ in which the government thinks UK scientists can “lead the world” and where future spending decisions are likely to be concentrated.

The UK’s investment in ESA will rise to £240m per year over the next five years, an increase of £60m per year over the amount already invested under the current spending review period. The £240m figure will be protected into the next spending period, science minister David Willetts later confirmed at a press briefing.

Osborne also announced that ESA will site its telecoms satellite headquarters at the Research Complex at Harwell in Oxfordshire. “ESA made it clear to us that if we came in with that kind of commitment, that would in turn mean that we would have to focus a big increase in the activities at Harwell,” Willetts said. “Harwell will become essentially the centre for using all satellite data.”

The chancellor said while the government does not itself create scientific innovation nor translate it into growth, “we can back those who do”. He added that his economic plan includes “harnessing our scientific ingenuity and translating it into growth and jobs”.

The eight technologies described in the chancellor’s speech are: data and computing, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, energy storage, advanced materials, robotics and space technology.

On synthetic biology, Osborne announced the recipients of awards totalling £20m from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which will be given to six research groups. These include £4.5m to a group led by Greg Challis, professor of chemical biology at the University of Warwick and £4m to Marshall Stark, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Glasgow.

On regenerative medicine, the chancellor promised: “We have more to say next month.”

On advanced materials and nano-technology, the chancellor said that awards totalling £22m and for manufacturing and technologies linked to graphene would be announced later in November. A spokeswoman for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council confirmed that this investment is part of the £50m announced on 2 February, not new money.

The chancellor added that he wanted to start a debate about the list of eight technologies, which was drawn up by Willetts. “I would like government to work with you to build a consensus that these are the right goals,” he told an invited audience at the Royal Society.

In a questions and answer session following the speech he also defended his decision to pick winners. “We rely on the scientific community to make the assessment of what should be supported and what shouldn’t. But there’s a finite resource and we’ve got to make choices about where the money goes,” he said. “What I’m saying today is that …there are areas where we know we have a lead and in that nexus between science and industry and technology; let’s back those things. Otherwise I think we’ll make no choices as a country.”

Later at the press briefing, Willetts, faced with questions about the lack of arts and humanities research projects in the list of technologies, said: “These are general-purpose technologies. E-infrastructure benefits arts and humanities researchers as much as those in any other discipline.”