UK investment concerns academics

The government has announced £200m to support science and engineering businesses, amid criticism that its plans for cutting funds for pioneering academic research will stifle future UK innovation.

Gordon Brown, prime minister, announced that the UK Innovation Investment Fund (UKIF) will be used to support life sciences, digital and advanced manufacturing businesses in their efforts to achieve venture capital support.

The fund follows an announcement last month of £125m for low-carbon and clean-tech sectors. The government has argued that investing in businesses based on early-stage technology can lead to growth opportunities in the UK’s ailing economy and create highly skilled jobs.

Yet the government has ignited ire from UK academics at risk of losing funding for future research. They argue proposals for cuts in this area neglect the engines that will drive these innovative companies in the future.

While the government is busy throwing money at private equity firms, it is also subjecting our science base to a sustained twin attack

This was illustrated last month in a survey released by the University and College Union (UCU), which found that 35 per cent of the 589 professors polled said they would consider pursuing their academic career abroad if funding cuts were introduced.

‘It is bitterly ironic that the government is handing over yet more money to the private sector to encourage investment in new industries while simultaneously slashing funding from the universities that generate real innovation,’ said Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary.

She added: ‘Where does the government think the blue-skies research that underpins genuine innovation in new technology industries will take place? While it is busy throwing money at private equity firms, it is also subjecting our science base to a sustained twin attack.’

Hunt referenced press reports from earlier this week about warnings from US scientists that swingeing cuts in UK university and research budgets will force the most talented British scientists to find jobs in countries that are continuing to invest in science.

‘If the government really wants a high-technology industrial future, it needs to take a long, hard look at what it’s doing to our universities and return to proper investment,’ added Hunt.

David Secher, chair of the UK research commercialisation association PraxisUnico, said that in addition to funding research, the government should help good ideas from university laboratories make the transition into commercial realities.

During these times of economic uncertainty, he added, venture capitalists are more reluctant to make investments. 

This is an opportunity, Secher said, for the government to step up efforts and provide funding through successful programmes such as the University Challenge Seed Fund.

‘These challenge funds could be a huge success particularly at a time such as this when good ideas are coming out of universities but are not getting funded by the private sector,’ he added.

‘It would be enormously valuable for the whole economy to provide some top-up of funding for those challenge funds.’