Seminar: Funding in Science and Technology - Who pays? Who benefits?
10 October 2006
The science community today descended on the House of Commons to debate the issues surrounding funding in science and technology.
Organised by RSC Manager for Science Policy Communications, Dr Rachel Brazil and the RSC's parliamentary affairs team, the seminar featured four speakers and was followed by a panel question and answer session.
First up was Professor Ben Martin, from the Science and Technology Research Unit at the University of Sussex.
Prof Martin covered many topics in his presentation, commenting that although the labour government has overseen a significant increase in funding in real terms since coming to power, the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in Britain that is going into research and development (R & D) has actually fallen.
He also proposed that the degree to which scientific research can lead to technological development and innovation is not necessarily to do with the strength of the individual components, but more the strength of the links between those components that allow ideas and information to flow more easily.
Prof Martin cautioned against attempts to quantitatively measure the financial return on public science funding. The returns are often very long term and the criteria needed to measure outcomes so complex that most mechanisms devised are simplistic and inaccurate.
The second speaker was Dr Tim Bradshaw, head of innovation at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
Dr Bradshaw compared the UK's investment in R & D to other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, and found that the UK was behind France, Germany, Sweden and USA in terms of the percentage of GDP spent.
And of the top 1000 companies in the world by R & D spending, just 50 are in the UK, compared to more than 200 in Japan and over 400 in Europe.
He said that companies needed to take more advantage of the government tax credits offered for R & D purposes, which can be a maximum of 7.5 per cent for large firms and 9.5 per cent for small medium enterprises.
Neil Gregory, from the Institute of Manufacturing at Cambridge University, was the third speaker.
In an interactive talk, Mr Gregory looked at the fears some people have that all industry could move to Asia, and said he believed the UK was behind the USA and Canada in entrepreneurial activity.
He commented that much was done in America to encourage scientists to branch out into their own companies, and the UK needed to have more flexible employment practices to encourage innovation.
Mr Gregory also asked the audience to consider what the underlying reasons behind R & D are or should be; is it to create and/or disseminate knowledge, publicise it to peers, teach it to students, to gain profit through licensing or spin-off companies, or for the general public good?
Neil Gregory from the Institute of Manufacturing at Cambridge University explains how nobel prize winning science is eventually transferred to the technology found in a DVD player that now sells for less than £20
The final speaker, Dr Jack Stilgoe from independent think-tank DEMOS, said that the general public often felt a general disconnect from science, adding that it is clearly part of each scientist's professional responsibility to promote public understanding of science.
He called for the concept of a 'public value of science' to be considered in discussion of what kind of science should be funded - where the contribution that science and technology makes is valued for more than just what it can contribute to the economy but for what it can contribute in a social and ethical context.
Work done by the think tank suggested scientists needs training and support for reflection on social and ethical issues, to help them understand and better interact with the public.
Following the seminar, Dr Brazil said: "The RSC is delighted to be able to facilitate discussions on such fundamental issues as how science is funded and what sort of science we should be funding in the UK. It is clear that funding basic science and promoting innovation and knowledge transfer is crucial for UK plc, but the debate as to how this should be done and how we can preserve a social and ethical dimension to our science will continue."
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