Mark Leftly: We're down in the dumps about research and science is suffering
Westminster Outlook In the shadow of Augustus Pugin's final and finest architectural gift to the nation, a 156-year-old clock tower that is the most city-defining example of the 19th century Gothic revival, Westminster hacks revel in "data dumps".
A beautiful sty for us dirty pigs.
Still, muck must be raked and swathes of documents published all at once pored over.
One such inelegantly termed data dump went fairly unnoticed recently. A business select committee has launched an inquiry into business-university collaboration. This is a subject that is increasingly concerning academics and politicians as UK research and development spending, 1.72 per cent as a proportion of GDP, continues to lag behind the likes of France, Germany and, in particular, the research hotbed of South Korea.
In a dump of more than 60 written submissions to the inquiry, only a handful came from businesses. The rest were from universities or academic groupings, which illustrates who is wooing whom in this relationship.
GlaxoSmithKline did make a submission – unsurprising, given that the inquiry was partly prompted by a government-commissioned review led by the drug group's chief executive, Sir Andrew Witty.
GSK warns that the introduction of full economic costing nearly a decade ago is "making UK academics more expensive … in comparison with similar collaborative opportunities in other countries". Under this model, universities charge companies for more than just pure financial costs, typically including unquantified aspects of joint research such as using faculty equipment or laboratories. GSK argues that charging what is, admittedly, a more accurate assessment of the costs of a collaborative project ignores the benefits that universities receive from the relationship, such as use of private-sector technologies.
The submission points to a survey by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry that found 25 per cent of post-doctoral research funded by British companies goes to institutions outside the UK. That is double the proportion in 2007, which, as GSK points out, "may inevitably undermine the competitiveness of the UK academic base". Universities need to stop thinking that industry makes enough money that it can pay for the bulk of joint research projects.
The Government has ringfenced publicly funded research, but the budget has been static at £4.6bn since 2011. That is just 0.65 per cent of GDP and is falling with inflation at a time when China and Brazil are aiming to reach 2.5 per cent by the early 2020s. GSK argues that it is "pivotal" for this spending to be protected against inflation and beyond one five-year parliament, which means there will need to be some cross-party collaboration as well.
Politicians, unions, the media and much of the public were fuming over the idea that GSK's rival, AstraZeneca, might fall into foreign hands when the US Viagra maker Pfizer tried and failed to buy the group for £69bn last month. Among the chief concerns was that a foreign company might reduce Britain's research base, making scientists redundant. In an instant, AstraZeneca was transformed into a company of national strategic importance. Whether a Pfizer deal would have seen researchers lose their jobs and facilities closed is debatable, but what should be beyond debate is the value that we put on science.
GSK is not a perfect company, as any animal rights protester will tell you. But the warnings on full economic costing and inflation-proofing the government science budget should be taken seriously if the UK wants an R&D base that will help our universities, businesses and economy thrive in the coming decades.
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