Monday, 15 June 2009

The importance of science

What a week to be away! On the political front it was hectic and I am very concerned to see that science yet again seems to be taking a back seat as a result of the merger between the Department of Innovation Universities and Skills and Peter Mandelson’s department – now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

This is, to my mind, a downgrading of the importance of science – which includes but is not exclusively medical research. I know I am a few days late with this but feel strongly enough to add my voice to all of those already expressed. At what point will political parties understand, really understand, the value of science to the prosperity of the country and the benefit of human-kind. If scientists do not have the freedom, the environment and the funding to explore we will all be much the worse for it – not immediately but soon enough to matter.

I loathe the linking of “science and technology”. They are not mutually exclusive but it implies that the two are inextricably linked. If research proves that a change in diet could prevent cancer – that’s science but it isn’t technology. If science identifies a new protein which could be linked to disease – it takes a long time before that can turn into technology. Medical and other scientific research would be nowhere without modern technology but that is the means and not the end.

Technology and entrepreneurship are vital – I wouldn’t be posting a blog on the internet without them - as are innovation and skills but it isn’t science.

There has been quite a substantial response to this decision and I think that the statement by Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society sums up the potential benefits but the substantial risks:

"Science and innovation should be the bedrock on which the economy builds as we come out of the current recession. Placing science alongside business and enterprise should help to make that happen. The UK became a world economic power through applying science during the industrial revolution and today we are still home to many of the world's leading scientists.

However, in the rush to unlock economic benefits, we must ensure that we don't divert resources away from basic research. To maintain a flow of groundbreaking ideas and ensure that the UK remains competitive in attracting mobile talent, it is imperative that the science budget remains strong and ring-fenced. In the US we have seen the positive impact of science being moved closer to the centre of the administration, it is time we followed suit."

Tomorrow we will be publishing a report on the effects of Full Economic Costing (fEC) on medical research in universities – the picture that researchers paint is not very positive for charity-funded medical research.

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