Campaigners fear science review has been misdirected: Scientists say good ideas not exploited because of failure to invest in research and development

Susan Watts,Technology Correspondent
Sunday 23 May 1993 23:02 BST

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SCIENTISTS fear that a year-long review of British science has been misdirected. A White Paper on science and technology, due this week, is expected to underline the Government's view that the nation's scientific effort should help to foster wealth creation.

But John Mulvey, from the campaigning group Save British Science, said the Government has been looking in the wrong place. Britain's problems with exploiting its inventions and discoveries lie not with the science base, but with an industrial culture that neglects investment in research and development.

He said that William Waldegrave, the Cabinet minister responsible for science, is making a mistake in trying to manipulate the relatively small amount of money available to the science research councils, rather than looking to the multi-billion pound shortfall in investment by industry.

'This is like trying to lever a granite rock with a matchstick. If the research councils have to support projects because they have wealth creation potential then there is a risk of starving vital research that may simply be unfashionable,' he said.

'The science base has plenty of good ideas, but these are not getting exploited because industry does not have the resources to try them out.'

Dr Mulvey wants government incentives, such as tax breaks, to encourage British companies to innovate. He also suggested some kind of 'patient' money in a central bank that could offer long-term loans to small and medium-sized companies without demanding immediate returns. 'While Mr Waldegrave is turning the eyes of our research councils towards wealth-creation, the Department of Trade and Industry has halved its spending on support for industrial R & D over the past six years . . . There is no coherence here.'

Mr Waldegrave has made it clear that his White Paper will not herald any new money. Even so, scientists had hoped it would at least signal agreement with the principle that Britain's science base is underfunded. Dr Mulvey is not optimistic. 'It is clear that we cannot expect great things in the current economic climate. But the Government still has not grasped the magnitude of the problem,' he said.

'In an act of policy unique among G7 nations, the Government has reduced its support of all R & D in real terms. Total government expenditure on R & D (civil plus defence) fell by nearly pounds 1bn between 1986-87 and 1991- 92. Of this fall, about pounds 400m was in support of civil R & D. Had the UK followed the average rate of increase of spending by governments in other G7 countries, the total would have risen by about pounds 1bn, that is to nearly pounds 2bn above the actual 1991-92 level.' He said that, for total R & D, the UK was one of three countries in the 24- member OECD to end the 1981-1990 period spending less as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product than at the start.

(Graph omitted)

Wanted: boost for research, page 13

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