This summer brings remarkable opportunities for various forms of national celebration and as part of this we ought to reflect on the amazing influence of research. Since the Queen came to the throne in 1952 the pace of research and scientific breakthrough has been remarkable. In that decade alone researchers funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) identified haemoglobin and discovered that the molecular structure of DNA is a double helix. The Research Councils also funded the first controlled trial for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and the implications of that research are still being felt today. That was in bio-medical science alone: the same dramatic impacts are observable everywhere.
The men and women who have made the UK's research base so productive, and who are so highly regarded globally, should be recognised for their achievements. British researchers continue to be held in enormous regard and their achievements have been admired the world over across centuries.
Since 1953, UK researchers have been awarded 75 Nobel prizes, second only to the United States. This is a remarkable feat and has seen researchers recognised for work across all academic fields, including Francis Crick for medicine in 1962; Dorothy Hodgkin for chemistry in 1964; and, more recently, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for physics in 2010. (Alongside multiple Nobel prizes awarded for literature and related areas.) This magnificent history of talented people undertaking world-changing work is a legacy to be proud of and we should bang the drum loud and long.
UK research has had a lasting effect on the rest of world. For example, in 1957 UK researchers from the British Antarctic Survey took measurements of the ozone layer over Antarctica for the first time and in 1989 the Montreal Protocol was signed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels. Scientists world-wide now hope that adherence to the protocol will mean the ozone layer will begin to repair itself. Today's research base is global and spreads across the best minds and facilities internationally. The UK Research Councils, and the researchers they support, work in collaboration with the best and are distinguished among them.
The UK's seven Research Councils were incorporated by royal charter under the Science and Technology Act 1965, although they have, in various guises, supported research for much longer. Indeed, the MRC will celebrate its centenary next year. Each year they now invest around £3bn across the full spectrum of academic disciplines from medical and biological sciences to astronomy, physics, chemistry and engineering, social sciences, economics, environmental sciences and the arts and humanities. Often the impact of research is not immediately felt, but comes to fruition gradually through continued support and investment. This is a history we should celebrate.
A good example is that of the MRC scientists who in 1956 showed that the death rate from lung cancer among heavy smokers was 20 times greater than among non-smokers, providing conclusive evidence that smoking causes lung cancer. At the same time, longitudinal studies of people throughout their lives, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, show a link between smoking while pregnant and later health issues. Researchers continued to build on this work over subsequent decades to inform public health policy, thus contributing to the UK smoking ban. Research innovates, surprises, accumulates, persuades. Its importance is incalculable.
In these challenging times, it is vital to invest in research, it stimulates growth and helps future prosperity and wellbeing. The Research Councils continue to support excellent research wherever it is found to ensure that when society looks back in a further 60 years the legacy will still be going strong, and yet another celebration will be due.
More information about Research Councils UK is available at www.rcuk.ac.uk
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