Leading article: The skills that hold the key to our future


Tony Blair will today make some pretty bold claims on behalf of science. The Prime Minister is expected to argue in a lecture that scientific innovation is as important to Britain's future as economic stability; that promoting excellence in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology, engineering and mathematics is of supreme strategic national importance.

And he will be right. Britain must today compete in a global knowledge economy. A nation's natural resources are now of secondary importance. More vital to its prosperity is intellectual capital, the skills of its population. And there are few skills as flexible and productive as those conferred by a scientific education.

Mr Blair can point to a respectable record of allowing cutting-edge science to flourish. The science budget has doubled under his premiership. And stem-cell research in particular has made good progress. The Government has farmed out regulation of this morally fraught area to an independent body and rightly rejected the sort of obstructive populist grandstanding adopted by the Bush administration on the other side of the Atlantic.

But by no means everyone in the scientific community is happy with the Government's record. Some are concerned about the apparent decline of the scientific disciplines at school and university level. They point to the falling numbers of students taking sciences at A-level and the fact that almost a third of university physics departments have closed in the past decade. They fear too that this is having a knock-on effect. Applications for teacher training in science and mathematics are in decline, despite a Government incentive scheme. An alliance of science associations warned last month that the next generation of scientists could be lost if urgent action is not taken. Controversy also erupted earlier this month over the new "dumbed down" science GCSE. All of this has created the impression of crisis.

This impression is exaggerated. There are actually more young people studying science in universities than there were a decade ago. Many have simply switched disciplines. As last year's report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found, an increasing number of students are choosing subjects such as forensic science rather than traditional courses such as physics and chemistry. Moreover, it is not the Government's job to tell universities which departments to keep open and which to close. Universities must have freedom to think strategically if we want them to be world-class higher education institutions.

The promotion of science is not solely a government responsibility. The proportion of our GDP spent on research and development is still lower than in the United States and some of our European neighbours. This is because UK businesses are still not investing enough. The commercial demand for science graduates should really be higher.

But the state could still be doing more. Science at school clearly needs more attention. So does the bigger picture. Mr Blair rightly identifies climate change as a great opportunity for UK scientists. Britain is well placed to become a pioneer in clean-energy technology. But the Government is doing too little pump priming. There must be bigger grants specifically for this sort of research. Mr Blair should also understand that only bold action by central government to put a proper price on carbon will create a genuine incentive for business to invest heavily in clean technology research.

We need to get this right. An innovative scientific research sector is crucial to Britain's economic wellbeing. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely to be crucial to the future of the planet.

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