Academies demand central role for research after election

The national academies have urged whoever wins power in the May General Election to place research and innovation at the heart of plans for long-term economic growth.

The strength of UK research and innovation. Click on image to enlarge
They have also called on the next government to strengthen public investment in research and innovation to secure prosperity; to meet the demand for research skills to provide a flexible and diverse workforce; and to strengthen policy by embedding expert advice across government.

In a joint statement, The Royal Society, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering and The Academy of Medical Sciences on 10 February set out the actions the next government should take “to make the UK the location of choice for world class research, development and innovation”.

In a vision document issued with the statement, Building a Stronger Future: Research, innovation and growth, they said the UK has a world-leading research base, which provides the foundation for new ideas and discoveries and fuels economic growth and the creation of high-value jobs.

Research investment OECD comparison with UK. Click on image to enlarge
But they warned that UK investment in research is failing to keep pace with other leading nations and risks eroding the capacity to attract and retain the very best researchers from the UK and overseas.

The Finnish economy is one tenth the size of the UK’s but in 2013 the Finnish innovation agency, Tekes, invested €542.3 million (US$617 million) compared to Innovate UK’s £440.9 million (US$679 million), they said.

“To ensure that the UK can exploit all that its excellent research and innovation base has to offer and remain an economic powerhouse, it must keep investing in and building an environment in which research will prosper and ideas will flourish,” the academies warned.

The vision document warns that cuts in innovation and research in the 1980s drove many leading UK scientists to the United States.

“Generous investments in research by governments across the world, coupled with austerity at home, risks creating a similar exodus today,” it says.

The academies urged the next government to create an environment that attracts more industrial and charitable investment in research and innovation, in addition to that from government. Medical charities invest £1.3 billion annually, constituting a third of all publicly funded medical research.

They also emphasised the need for more teachers with specialist subject knowledge at all stages of education.

Lord Stern of Brentford, president of the British Academy, said research drives innovation, and innovation drives growth and a healthy society and democracy.

The UK already produces some of the most cutting-edge research in the world – 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited articles come from the UK and it ranks 2nd for the quality of its scientific institutions.

“However, we cannot take this leadership in research for granted,” he said.

Flexible workforce

Urgent action is required for the UK to meet the demand for skilled people, otherwise the UK research base and the wider economy will be weakened, the academies said. By 2020 1.28 million workers will be required to fill science, engineering and technology roles, yet not enough UK-based students are coming through the education system to take up these roles, according to Building a Stronger Future.

Speaking about the need for a flexible and diverse workforce, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: "We need high quality skills across all disciplines to meet the demand from the UK research and innovation base and the wider economy.

“As well as growing the UK skills base, we must compete for the high-quality global research and student talent available by having the right policies in place to encourage immigration that will benefit the nation.”

She said international research networks are growing in strength and there is a need to think in terms of contributing to ‘brain circulation’ rather than ‘brain drain’.

The academies stressed the need to increase the numbers of teachers with specialist subject knowledge at all stages of education and reinstate a balance between research and teaching activities in higher education, where teaching is often under-valued compared with research performance.

In 2013 more than a fifth of mathematics and chemistry teachers, a third of physics teachers and more than half of computer teachers in state-funded schools in England had no relevant post-A-level qualification in the subject they were teaching.

Expert advice to government

Building a Stronger Future says policy-making is increasingly dependent on complex evidence that could help unlock solutions of great economic and social value.

Input from experts is required for decision-makers to tackle unexpected challenges like the disruption of air travel by volcanic eruptions and more everyday challenges like how to pay for the care of older people.

It cites four examples of national and global health crises in which expert advice should, did or could play a vital role.

In the 1990s the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, popularly known as ‘mad cow disease’, required swift decisions by policy-makers with limited information.

According to the report, there were major failings in the way evidence was sought and used in tackling the crisis and by 2000 it had cost the UK government £3.7 billion and damaged public trust.

By contrast, expert advice helped trace the virus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, helped trace those who had been exposed and provide a coordinated global response, halting the 2003 outbreak that caused 774 deaths and cost tens of billions of dollars.

The current Ebola crisis and the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance are other examples of costly global health crises or emerging problems that may need tackling through the strengthening of global governance or collaborative research internationally, for which expert advice or input is crucial.

Sir Paul Nurse, president of The Royal Society, said: “As policy-makers become increasingly dependent on complex evidence, it becomes ever more important that they have access to world-leading scientific experts and advice.”

Matching international competitors

Professor Sir John Tooke, president of The Academy of Medical Sciences, said long-term investment in the UK’s world-leading research, which grows to match international competitors will benefit all of society.

“Support for medical science, for example, offers NHS patients the prospect of new and more effective treatments. The next government must commit to making the UK the best place in the world to undertake such work to realise the clear social and economic gains it generates.”