Research Matters: 'Each year, it's British scientists who are the real champions'

Decades of discovery and innovation have been driving UK economic successes

January is traditionally a time for reviewing the year gone by, and I think we can agree that 2012 was spectacular. It was a year when the UK demonstrated yet again that in global races, we often lead the world.

Most of us would probably choose the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games as the high point, and I'm no different. It was not just the breathtaking opening ceremony, or superb medal-winning performances from Team GB and Paralympics GB – the Games make my list also because of the world-leading science and research that supported the athletes' exceptional performances (bit.ly/ J1TFwm). Without pioneering research in design, equipment, psychology and training techniques, our haul of medals might not have been quite so impressive.

But the UK's world-leading research doesn't just underpin success in sport. There is now ample evidence across the world's advanced economies that high performance in research brings widespread economic success and social wellbeing.

This is why, in another economically challenging year, it has been so crucial to continue to invest in science and research. Speaking at the Royal Society in November last year, the Chancellor George Osborne identified eight pioneering, research-led technologies that he believes could stimulate the future health and prosperity of our economy and our society (bit.ly/Ro8D2E).

In his subsequent autumn statement, he underlined the commitment to UK research by announcing £600m of additional investment. Areas that will benefit include synthetic biology, regenerative medicine and advanced materials. As you can imagine, such investment is a natural high point of the year for me, because areas such as these have the potential to bring value to the UK for years to come.

Scientific discoveries and research innovations have been yearly highlights in the UK for decades. They are one of our great, untrumpeted success stories year after year. In 2012, there were too many breakthroughs to list easily, but some things you may have heard about include: the discovery of a new Alzheimer's "risk" gene; advances in super-computing; and the investment by my own council, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to strengthen the impact of arts and humanities research in the fastest growing sector of our economy, the creative industries, represented so lavishly in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. But all of the research we are funding brings such benefits directly or indirectly to the UK.

Perhaps the most high-profile scientific discovery of 2012 was the confirmation of the Higgs boson particle. Research by the teams at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which receives funding from the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council, contributed in a major way to this discovery. Since the 1960s when Professor Peter Higgs – who was among those in the Queen's New Year Honours list – first suggested the idea, he, and many other scientists, have devoted their careers to the challenge of demonstrating the existence of these elusive particles – and thus to winning another gold medal for UK science.

The years ahead for UK research will of course include challenges in this fiscally unstable time. Science and research needs continuous investment to stay at the leading edge. But the world is full of exciting challenges and opportunities, especially for those now embarking on their research careers. Not every year will be as spectacular as 2012, but in becoming part of the UK's science and research endeavour you will undoubtedly be joining a winning team.

For further information on Research Councils UK visit www.rcuk.ac.uk

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