It’s time for government to get serious about science

Whilst it’s important to recognise the economic potential of a great idea, we should be wary of putting economics at the heart of all decisions to do with science and technology.

In recent years the UK has done much to address one its most well-documented scientific shortcomings: a systemic failure to exploit the economic benefits of some of its best ideas. The government’s Catpult Centres, set up to help fledgling technologies cross the so-called commercial valley of death, are a good example of this.

But whilst it’s important to recognise the economic potential of a great idea and to create the conditions for it to become successful, we should be wary of putting economics at the heart of all decisions to do with science and technology.

Many of the scientific community’s biggest and most significant contributions to the world are themselves the result of a scientific process that cannot be forced, fast-tracked or second-guessed.

And with government spending cuts continuing to bite, and business secretary Sajid Javid reportedly considering proposals to replace research grants with loans, this week’s report from the commons science and technology committee is a timely reminder that whilst its short term benefits might be hard to quantify, investment in scientific research is essential to the UK’s long-term economic future.

Funding for research and science is currently being held at just 1.7% of GDP, which is well below the OECD average of 2.4%. The committee claims that this shortfall will see the UK fall behind other developed countries like Germany and the US and calls on the government to increase investment.

A host of big-hitters have come out in support of the report. Outgoing CBI boss John Cridland called for “more not less” funding for science. Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse cautioned against sacrificing long-term prosperity for short-term savings.  Whilst prominent physicist and broadcaster Prof. Brian Cox, argued that anything less than increased investment would be negligent.

We couldn’t agree more. 

Whilst its important that we do everything we can to exploit the commercial potential of our scientific discoveries and research breakthroughs, this shouldn’t be the main driver.

We must also embrace the unpredictable, and give great minds the space to experiment, unburdened by economic concerns or fear of failure.

It’s this spirit of discovery and unfettered innovation that has, throughout history, underpinned many of the inventions and breakthroughs that define our world, and a failure to acknowledge this dynamic is economic folly.

A truly ambitious approach to UK innovation will accept that longer term investment in research with no obvious commercial potential is every bit as important as picking short term winners. And such a far-sighted approach cannot be left to the private sector. It’s time for government to get serious about science.