Leading Article: British science in a sorry state

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The Independent Online
A REALISATION in 1914 that Britain was dependent on Imperial Germany for vital technology highlighted the failure of industry to capitalise on British science. Institutions created then and subsequently modified served as the foundation of state support for civil science. Today the powerful competition of other economies dictates a rethink.

During the Eighties, the United Kingdom lagged behind every OECD country apart from Turkey and New Zealand in the proportion of the economy devoted to scientific research. This poor performance would have been worse had it not been buoyed by defence research. The technological backwardness of British industry is a legacy of that neglect.

This week, William Waldegrave, the cabinet minister responsible for science, will detail his solutions to a problem that, if unresolved, will condemn Britain to maintaining a relatively low technology economy. Thatcherite policies were characterised by a withdrawal of state support for science in the belief that the market would fill the vacuum. British Nobel Prize winners who cannot secure funding and academics tempted to flee to the United States will look to Mr Waldegrave with sceptical, but hopeful eyes.

There is obviously a role for government here. The development of basic science, with which industrial research begins, is unlikely to be undertaken by private companies. Individual firms also know that competitors will reap the benefits of new knowledge that cannot be patented.

The difficulty lies in deciding how far government should nurse that knowledge until it is developed by industry. Mrs Thatcher believed that industry could spot smart scientists and profitable projects and that the state need not act as nanny. That belief appears to have been ill-founded. An alternative approach seemed to lie in industry co-operating better with universities.

Companies that have taken science seriously have reaped rewards. The pharmaceutical and chemical industries, which have given scientists powerful positions in management, have maintained technological competitiveness as the electronics industry, for example, has lagged behind. Drug companies have endowed university chairs and sponsored research, setting an example other industries have been slow to follow. British academics recount how talent spotters frequently visit from Japan and the US, rarely from UK industries.

A cash-strapped but interested government can play a key role by raising the profile of science, which has become marginalised politically, fragmented administratively and largely ignored industrially. This may involve sponsoring research in half-way houses between industry and universities, or introducing new tax incentives for industry to invest in scientific development. Mr Waldegrave must offer vision and leadership to a sector that has been undermined by low morale, short-termism and British industry's lack of imagination. A government preoccupied with its own immediate financial problems must strive to set a new tone.