British science `in deep decline'

BRITAIN IS turning into a third- rate country for scientific research because of years of under-investment and a public mistrust of the new gene technology, says one of the country's leading industrialists.

Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of the pharmaceuticals giant, Glaxo-Wellcome, warned that some developing countries were poised to overtake Britain because of a significant decline in scientific expertise, exemplified by a failure to understand the importance of biotechnology by the public and government.

Sir Richard, who will raise his concerns today in his presidential address to the British Association's Annual Festival of Science in Sheffield, said public fears over GM food and the Government's refusal to give planning permission for a biotechnology park in Cambridge are examples of the wrong message Britain is sending to the world.

"Government messages and actions have not always been consistent," Sir Richard said yesterday. "A good example is the refusal to approve the Wellcome Trust's development of the biotechnology park at Hinxton Hall, which is a world-leading facility for genomic research."

The Wellcome Trust, an independent research charity with no direct links other than shareholdings with Glaxo-Wellcome, has threatened to take its biotechnology park overseas if the Government refuses to reconsider. Sir Richard said the debate over GM food has failed to highlight potential benefits of the bio-industry and caused deep public disquiet over a technology that can offer many benefits.

"It is now possible the outcomes of the present anti-GM food campaign will be detrimental to this country," Sir Richard said. "It will lead to a failure to develop UK companies based upon technology developed here, and loss of technical expertise as funding by major international companies is withdrawn and disadvantage for British agriculture.

"The development of the technology will continue elsewhere and its full potential and rewards will be realised by our competitors."

Among emerging countries showing signs of outpacing British scientific expertise, in Singapore, Korea and the Czech Republic, children perform consistently better in science and maths than British students, Sir Richard said.

"It is the long tail of under-achievement that drags down our performance. There must be concern about the fact that young people are losing interest in the sciences, and the consequent decline in students taking sciences at A-level and at university must be reversed.

"The UK has a science base which is world-class and punches above its weight in its outputs," Sir Richard added. "But the records of the past are no guarantee for future success."