UK must adapt to keep research lead

Britain risks being eclipsed by China and India as a leader in science and innovation unless vital changes are made to PhD and masters programmes and research investment.

This was the warning given by the Council of Science and Technology (CST) following the release of its report on the future of scientific research in the UK.

The report, by senior figures from across the field of science, engineering and technology, analyses the state of science and research within the UK against a rapidly changing global situation.

The CST called for the government to increase the timescale for achieving a PhD degree to four years, with the first one or two years potentially leading to a masters degree.

It is argued that this would more likely allow students to develop specific and widely deployable skills.

The report also addressed potential budget cuts, stressing that investment should be sustained in UK research despite the difficult period for public spending.

The government, the CST stated, should invest in a new framework for research to allow it to be more easily translated into real-world benefits and help tackle global challenges.

The report was welcomed by Gordon Brown, who commented: ‘The government’s continued support for science and research, and the doubling in real terms of the science and research budget since 1997, has helped to ensure that UK research leads the world.

‘UK research is the most productive in the G8 and its overall quality and impact is ranked second only to the US in areas such as clinical sciences, biosciences and environmental sciences.

‘I welcome the CST’s recommendations on how to ensure that UK research maintains its leading edge and ensure that as a country we fully reap the economic and social rewards of this vital work.’

Government chief scientific advisor and co-chair of the CST, Prof John Beddington, said the UK still trails the US as a research base and much must be done to maintain even this second-place position.

‘This position, and all the benefits it brings to the UK, is under threat from strong investments by existing and emerging economies.

‘British science and engineering have a crucial role to play in tackling global challenges and building a 21st century infrastructure.

‘A strategy properly focussing our efforts will ensure science spending can compete successfully with other financial pressures in a tough economic climate,’ he added.

CST co-chair Prof Dame Janet Finch, said: ‘We urge government to continue to make research a priority and maintain its important role in creating the best environment for research to flourish and to help maximise the economic and social impacts of research.

‘This is essential if the UK is to remain a strong global player in the more fiercely competitive environment of research and innovation in the future, as other large economies invest more in science.’

The report stated that providing support for academia and research will be difficult in the short term because of financial constraints, but it suggests this can be achieved over the longer-term with several programmes.

One idea puts in place a competitive national scholarship scheme across all UK universities, aimed at recruiting and supporting top research students from the UK and around the world to do PhDs in UK universities.

A mechanism for recruiting and retaining the best researchers has also been proposed at post-doctoral level through competitive personal-support schemes.

The CST also suggested researchers should be given a chance to move more flexibly between academia, business and public sectors and should also be rewarded through a new Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Additionally the council called for a national personal-support scheme of prestigious research professorships for the best 100 researchers in the country.

The report also dabbled in immigration policy, suggesting the government should embrace the internationalisation of the research workforce, and make it both easy and attractive for the top researchers from around the world to develop their work in the UK.