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23/07/2014

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SET in parliament: Science for economic growth

Phil Willis welcomes investment

The harsh reality of an economy stagnating, with few options to stimulate growth, is concentrating the minds of all politicians. However, unlike previous economic downturns (we are not allowed to use the term ‘recession’) in which science was seen as an easy target for cuts, it is now almost universally hailed as the one area in which growth will stimulate economic activity.

The Universities and Science Minister David Willetts chose to announce a £145-million investment in supercomputer technology and £50m to create a global research hub to explore how to commercialise graphene, at Manchester University. This was more than symbolic. These announcements recognised the need for the UK to improve its computing capacity, and for the UK to actively exploit Nobel Prize-winning discoveries rather than seeing their potential realised overseas.

Supercomputers key

The investment in supercomputers is particularly welcome, though it is hardly sufficient. The US Department of Energy has long recognised that supercomputing is key to both scientific and industrial endeavours. Computer simulation and real time modelling  stimulate innovation at a pace previously beyond comprehension. It is not surprising therefore that the US currently has five out of ten of the world’s largest supercomputers and 22 of the top 50, dwarfing the capacity of their scientific competitors including France (five) , Germany (four) , China (four) and Japan (four) - though the latter currently has the largest computer, according to TOP500.

As for the UK, only Edinburgh University’s HECToR-Cray computer appears in the top 50 as 24th in supercomputer size league tables. The fact therefore that the government has recognised the huge potential for supercomputers to stimulate scientific and economic activity is great news. The government’s estimate that this investment has the potential to boost GDP by £25 billion and create 500,000 highly skilled jobs within ten years surely makes the case for more investment in this vital area, rather than handing out millions to local councils to collect waste bins weekly!

I suspect the down payment on this initiative has come from the £600m receipt from the sale of the radio spectrum. If so, I for one would urge a doubling of this investment rather than handing out small morale-boosting grants elsewhere.

Real reductions

Whilst praise is certainly due, it is important to recognise that, despite the rhetoric of a ‘good settlement for science’ in the current spending round, the science community is coming to terms with very real reductions to their budgets. An interesting analysis by the Campaign for Science and Engineering has estimated that, by 2015, UK science will be £1.5bn worse off in cash terms with high levels of inflation likely to further erode our ability to fund the best science.  Together with a 60 per cent decrease in capital funding, there is a real danger that any future increases will be merely playing catch-up.

The need to think again about investing for growth in our science base is absolutely essential. We know from the excellent Royal Society Report The Scientific Century that private sector R&D does not lead but follows public sector investment. Turning off the tap, therefore, is doubly counter productive. David Willetts appears to have understood the core message and Vince Cable at BIS is fully aware of the need for key investment in the scientific infrastructure. If the announcements at Manchester in both graphene exploitation and supercomputers are evidence of a new direction, the science community must take up the challenge and give these key ministers yet more ammunition.

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Lord Willis of Knaresborough
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is Chair of AMRC, NERC Council member and a member of the Lords Science and technology Committee
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