Speculation, investigation and application: how Britain is developing its science base

Science minister David Willetts explains how the UK’s science base it helping industry support the British economy

We want our economy to be stronger and fitter than ever. That is why we have protected spending on science. And now we have a long-term plan to increase investment – the most ambitious for decades. Over a billion pounds a year will be invested in new labs and facilities, year after year, to 2020.

This is how we are going to thrive in the global race. Sometimes it literally is a race — Britain is of course the home of Formula One motor racing. The teams monitor each car and driver second by second during a race. Imagine that the NHS could monitor the condition of a patient in intensive care as effectively. McLaren is working with Birmingham Children’s Hospital to do just that. Putting enterprise at the service of sick children.
Another global race is the space race. We do not have massive rockets or a massive budget; instead we have to get our satellites into space cheaply and efficiently. We have one of the world’s most entrepreneurial and nimble space industries, growing at almost 10% a year, as fast as the Chinese economy.

Everyone’s ambition is to have a fully reusable spacecraft, ending our reliance on rocket launches. It is a British engineer, Alan Bond, who has cracked that challenge. His engine doesn’t carry the oxygen to burn the fuel, instead it takes air from the atmosphere as you fly and cools it down to mix with the fuel. To do that he has developed the world’s most efficient heat exchanger. It cools air from 1,000 degrees Centigrade to minus 150 degrees in one hundredth of a second.

The Skylon project represents Britain’s ingenuity

 The global race is not just about speed, it’s about being smart and nimble too. We make the world’s smallest, most affordable computer – called Raspberry Pi.  The millionth has just been produced in South Wales, bringing an old factory back to life.
Who says we don’t make things in Britain any more? We make satellites and computers, cars and diggers, airplane wings and engines. Last year we ran a trade surplus in cars for the first time since the 1970s.

And it’s not just things – it’s the smart programmes behind them. We might not make the most powerful computers but we write the smartest software to get a result with fewer calculations. So we have the world’s most energy efficient computers. And the processing system inside almost every mobile phone and tablet is designed by a company started in Cambridge thirty years ago. Now ARM is worth over £13 billion. Tech City in London is Europe’s start-up capital. Over a thousand new companies have been created or moved there. That’s the spirit of enterprise, thriving in Britain again.
Of course we must always leave room for our scientists to pursue their own ideas, like Claire Rind, the scientist in Newcastle University who wondered how locusts manage to fly in such dense swarms without colliding. So she analysed locust brains to see how they worked. Now she is going to sell her anti-collision software to the car industry.
Scientists in Manchester used sticky tape to pull thin layers of material off a block of graphite until eventually they discovered graphene, one atom thick and 200 times stronger than steel. They got the Nobel prize for that in 2010. Now they are building a world-class lab – I was there this morning shovelling cement. I do a lot of that as Science Minister. The world’s researchers are beating a path to Manchester and I can announce today that Manchester will host Europe’s leading science conference in 2016. We can be proud of having so many of the world’s great universities here in Britain.

Graphene institute
The Graphene Institute is currently taking shape in Manchester, with a little concrete-shovelling help from David Willetts

We have been leading the world in life sciences ever since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. A quarter of the world’s leading drugs come from Britain. The patent box, part of our life science strategy, is attracting more investment to Britain. We got one billion pounds of commercial investment in biosciences last year. Now David Cameron has set the challenge of sequencing the genomes of 100,000 NHS patients. No other country has set such an ambition.

Our aim is for Britain to be the best place in the world to do science. But to achieve that we must invest long term and get the next generation doing science and engineering. That means girls as well as boys.
We are not going to win in the global race if we waste the talents of half the British people. The proportion of engineers who are women is one of the lowest in Europe and we’ve got to raise our game. That is why we support the ambition to double the proportion of engineering degrees taken by women.
Today I can announce two initiatives to help us achieve that. We will extend fee loans to part time students of engineering, technology, and computer science who already have a degree in a different discipline. And we will invest £200 million in new teaching facilities for science and engineering in our universities. Universities will have to match it with private money. So that makes £400 million of investment so that students can be taught on the latest equipment ready for the world of work. That is our commitment to working with universities and business to help win the global race.
Of course we can be proud of our past achievements. But even more important, with solid long-term funding for great British science, we can be confident in our future too.

David Willetts is minister of state for science, universities and skills. This article is adapted from his speech to the Conservative Party Annual Conference