It was an earlier than normal start for some us at the Society last Friday morning, as we prepared to welcome the Chancellor of the Exchequer in to the building; our colleagues on reception are not accustomed to seeing so many of the Science Policy Centre in before 8am. Not that we can complain too much about the early start, as the Society’s President arrived on a flight from New York at 7.15am, and turned up full of beans, ready for the morning’s discussions.
George Osborne delivered a speech entitled “Science, Technology and Growth”. He was accompanied by David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, and introduced by Paul Nurse. A real triumvirate of big hitters.
The room was packed, so I squeezed into the back of the room with the video cameras as the whole event was being also recorded (all available via the link above). Off to one side was the impressive portrait of a previous President of the Royal Society, Charles Montagu, mentioned by the Chancellor as he had held the Presidency whilst simultaneously being the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 17th century. No small feat and something which I don’t think either Paul or George aspire to.
The current Chancellor used this opportunity to give his first big speech on science, and set out a list of 8 future technologies in which the UK can be world-leading. His whistle stop tour of the UK’s technological strengths covered the following:
1. The Data Revolution and energy-efficient computing
2. Synthetic Biology: Harnessing the $100 billion Bioeconomy
3. Regenerative Medicine
5. Energy Storage and the stockpiling of electricity
6. Advanced Materials and Nano-technology
7. Robotics and Autonomous Systems
8. Opportunities to be a world leader in satellites and commercial applications of Space technology
Osborne emphasised two spending announcements: the UK is willing to commit an average of £240m per year, over the next five years through the European Space Agency to high value scientific and industrial programmes which will benefit the UK (this includes £60 million a year of new money for the next two years); and that the BBSRC is investing £20m into leading universities and researchers in the UK to use synthetic biology to benefit the UK economy by addressing major global challenges, such as producing low-carbon fuel and reducing the cost of industrial raw materials. The Research Councils’ new capital infrastructure roadmap encompasses these, also published on Friday.
Following the speech, the Chancellor and David Willetts took questions from the audience. As the microphones whizzed around as range of issues were covered: from the effect of Scottish independence on the science base, the possibility of funds from 4G auction being reinvested in science, the issue of ‘picking winners’, and the need for consistent support across the science base from government. The Chancellor answered most of the questions but fielded some more specific questions to Willetts who was happy to confirm that the UK wanted research funding to form a larger proportion of an overall smaller EU budget, but deferred comment on the reported threats to funding for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) to House of Commons authorities. The speech and warm words from the Government supporting science were well met, but the politicians did not get away without Paul Nurse encouraging the Chancellor to ‘put his money where his mouth is’.
A few of the Chancellor’s points touched on recent reports from the Science Policy Centre here at the Royal Society. To name a few: for data issues you’ll find Science as an open enterprise a useful companion, and for the sustainable intensification of global agriculture then look no further than Reaping the benefits where this is addressed well. We would also agree with the Chancellor’s view that “Innovation is not a sausage machine”, although it is not quite the analogy that you will find in our own report on support for UK science, The Scientific Century.
Friday’s audience (and the twittersphere, check out @RSocLive, or see #OsborneSci) welcomed the Chancellor’s final rousing words that, “We have great science in Britain. We are backing it. And we will do more.” Some may have been disappointed that the Chancellor didn’t elaborate on what this ‘more’ might be, but we look forward to urging him to make good on this promise.