British science needs saving - again (CORRECTED)

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The author is an Oxford physicist and a founder member of SBS.

Seven years ago this week a spontaneous cry of frustration among scientists brought into existence the Save British Science Society (SBS). An idea spread by telephone calls to friends produced in a matter of days twice the pounds 8,000 needed to place a half-page advertisement in the Times. Normally reticent academics put their hands in their pockets to pay for this public demonstration because government funding was failing to keep up with the cost of front-line research.

British science is again at a similar watershed. William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for science and also for the Citizen's Charter, is putting together the Government's promised White Paper on science and technology. Unless he gets his White Paper right, the citizens of Britain will not enjoy a 21st-century charter of the quality already available in many European and other countries.

Inadequate funding of academic research is but one aspect of a wider and long-standing failure in Britain to value as highly as other nations do investment in science teaching, training in advanced technologies, and industrial research and development (R & D) leading to innovative products. The two most successful economies, Germany and Japan, have built up national investment, public and private, in civil R & D to nearly 3 per cent of gross domestic product; the equivalent figure for the UK is 1.7 per cent. In cash terms the difference corresponds to a 'deficit' of pounds 5.5bn each year. UK government funding of civil R & D has dropped steeply over the past decade to 0.5 per cent of GDP, one of the lowest levels in Europe.

A notable exception to the rule is the pharmaceutical sector, which demonstrates the benefits of high R & D investment by its success as a world leader in comparison with Germany, Japan and the United States. Research scientists and engineers are being shed daily by industry as the short-sighted buccaneering activities of the financial markets oblige British companies to maintain dividends in hard times rather than prepare for success in the future. It is not like this in Japan.

Sir Keith (now Lord) Joseph was astonished when we told him in 1986 that the Government should have a policy for investment in science and technology. It still does not have a policy, but the White Paper will be an empty document unless it defines one.

Mr Waldegrave's cabinet responsibility for science and technology partly fulfilled an SBS call for a full-time minister, as in Germany or France. We welcomed his statements that the Government was going to take a fresh, open-

minded look at science and technology with the intention of 'framing a coherent, cross-departmental, long-term policy for the next five to ten years' to cover training in advanced technology, the science base, government and industrial civil R & D, and the balance with defence R & D.

We suggested targets for R & D investment; at least 2.7 per cent of GDP for civil R & D to be reached by 2000, with the government share rising to 0.8 per cent of GDP - similar to the level in many European countries.

So far the signs for the White Paper are not encouraging. The 1992 Autumn Statement did not contain the small, but real, increases expected in the budgets for the Research Councils, which are a direct responsibility of Mr Waldegrave's office.

Michael Heseltine at the Department of Trade and Industry has shown no signs of remembering his forceful words, written while in the post-Westland wilderness: 'The decline in R & D spending must be reversed.' The DTI budget shows a continuation of the steep decline in support for industrial civil R & D, with no transfer to the civil sector of reductions in spending on defence R & D.

Whitehall rumour suggests that civil service protocols preserving departmental boundaries have kept at bay any attempts by Mr Waldegrave's office to forge a cross-departmental approach.

In December, SBS wrote to the Prime Minister warning that the White Paper was a crucial last chance. As Europe opens up, it will become more competitive in every sphere. With our still outstanding base of scientists and engineers, the UK could, given essential investment, become the 'research laboratory of Europe', attracting the best rather than losing them.

We would then be able to hold on to multinational companies with research laboratories already here, attract new investment and be best placed to help our own industries in the high- technology, high-value-added markets of the future. If we do not make the effort required to win this position, we shall lose what we have now to others with more foresight and greater confidence in their future.