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Science is our future - it deserves support

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Former Cambridge MP Julian Huppert bemoans government proposals to freeze – or even cut – research funding in the UK

Lord Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics, famously said: ‘We haven’t got any money, so we’ll have to think’.

British science has taken that attitude for many years, with quite remarkable outputs from relatively low levels of funding. We are rightly proud of what we have managed to achieve despite this – a huge fraction of the world’s scientific output comes from scientists based in the UK.

But this proud history is now in jeopardy. Science and research managed to get through the cash freeze of the last five years, but it has been tricky, coping with a real terms loss of support. This materialises in incredibly low success rates for grants – even very well regarded work often fails to get funded.

Part of the problem is the feedback cycle this creates. A young scientist, considering whether to have a career in research in the UK, sees a future of frustration. More and more paperwork, with REF and TEF ruling their lives. Less and less support for research.

These people will leave research, or they will leave the UK. Either way, the quality of science and research that we do will suffer.

And this matters. The acquisition of knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake, but there are also clear economic benefits that accrue. What will we be doing as a country to earn our way in the world in the next 10, 20, or 50 years, if it’s not going to be based on knowledge we develop now?

Without research investment, we wouldn’t have developed medicines such as Humira, the world’s best selling medicine, with about £12 billion pounds of sales a year and making a huge difference to many people’s lives. We wouldn’t have nurtured the silicon chip designer ARM – a $20 billion company whose chips power almost every phone and tablet, and on track to ship more ARM chips this year than there are human arms in the world. And that’s just two of the many examples, just from south Cambridge.

But even just looking at new inventions, no matter how transformative, misses out the contribution made by research investment. There is a clear relationship between research spending and UK productivity. Cut one, and you reduce the other for the decade ahead. Our industries, large and small, need skilled people who know how to work at the cutting edge.

Businesses are clear – they want to see more government investment in science. And when government invests, businesses invest more as well – a powerful ‘crowding in’ effect that generates even more returns.

And yet we massively underinvest compared to most other developed countries. Our overall investment in research and development is now below 1.7 per cent, compared to an OECD average of 2.4 per cent. Only Italy among the G7 spends less than we do. In 2002, we signed up to an international agreement to hit 3 per cent by 2010, something we completely failed to do.

We need to get up there, and get proper investment flowing again, in our long term interests and in our short term interests as well. Our economy will benefit, and repay the investment.

I’d love to see the extra money that is needed arrive quickly – but I accept that given the financial problems we still have, asking for billions of pounds immediately is unlikely to happen. That’s why in 2012 I proposed a cross-party agreement to deliver 3 per cent above inflation for the next 15 years, providing certainty for researchers and for industry. This was adopted as Lib Dem policy – but no other party was prepared to commit funding to science or research; despite its importance, all that was offered was lukewarm words. We need better, and it is critical that the Chancellor delivers actual extra money in the spending review.

Of course, it’s not just about money. As well as money from the Chancellor, we need a Home Secretary who realises that immigration policies and rhetoric that drive international students and researchers away from the UK, place barriers in their way, or just make them feel unwelcome, harms Britain. We need a Business Secretary who understands the need for skills training through further and higher education so that there are highly-skilled technicians as well as leading researchers. We need an Education Secretary who ensures that science is taught in a way which captures its true essence as a creative subject, not just a list of facts to memorise.

We need a society that doesn’t discourage women from studying science, nor makes it harder for people from some ethnic backgrounds, people from poorer households, and people from remoter areas of the country.

We need a Prime Minister and a country that realises that science is an international subject, and we are best served by working with other countries, through the European Union and other bodies.

But the urgent priority now is the funding settlement. If this gives a cut in funding, or even just continues the freeze, research in the UK, and our entire economic future will suffer badly. Let’s hope the government realises that risk, and acts decisively to avoid it.