Vince Cable. Credit: Duncan Phillips/CASS.

This morning, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), called on the science and engineering community to make the case to the next Government to match the OECD average of 2.4% of GDP on R&D spending. In a speech setting out his thoughts on science and innovation, he also said the community will have to make clear that science spending is an investment, as well as demonstrating the returns that it provides.

Long-term vision, but no sign of the strategy

With speculation rife that the Government’s delayed Science and Innovation Strategy would launch this morning, a distinguished audience descended on the Royal Academy of Engineering to hear Vince Cable give a speech entitled ‘science and innovation’.

The Strategy did not emerge, but Cable took the opportunity to reflect on his time in Government, give his thoughts on how science and innovation should be supported, and to offer advice to the science and engineering community on the case that they should be making for investment.

As we get closer to the election, Vince Cable looked back on his experience in Government to ask three key questions in his speech.

Are we investing enough in science?

Cable’s answer was a clear “no”. He stated that Britain has been “very seriously underinvesting” in R&D, and getting away with it in part thanks to the excellence and productivity of the science base. Comparing the UK with other nations he was clear that the UK won’t be able to continue to be a leading scientific nation without a “step change” in our approach to investment.

Do we have the right funding structures in place?

This seemed to be an open question for Cable, with two interesting aspects. First, Cable questioned whether current funding mechanisms lead to too much concentration of funding, particularly in the South East of England. Second, he asked whether priorities like the eight great technologies are best supported, when they are funded through existing mechanisms.

Are we doing enough to support innovation?

Cable seemed proud of the Government’s direct support for innovation in recent years through investment in Innovate UK. He referred to the UK’s reputation in the past as great at science, but not so good at translation and commercialisation.

As it is for science funding, the question for innovation support will be where additional funding can come from—the Society is clear that any increase in innovation support cannot come at the expense of other elements of the science budget.

The Treasury challenge

Few in the audience would disagree with calls for Government to invest seriously in research. So, how to make the case to those holding the purse strings, with budgets set to continue their decline across Government?

Cable offered two key pieces of advice. First, science spending must be framed as an investment for the future of UK PLC, rather than a cost. He pointed to recent work in the EU, which has framed science investment in these terms, while EU budgets elsewhere have been falling.

Second, it will be crucial to provide clear evidence to the Treasury of the economic returns that investment in research brings. The Society hopes that benefits for society more broadly—such as for health and the environment—will carry some weight too.

The coalition countdown

With limited time left on the clock for the coalition Government, attention is turning to what approach a future Government might take to supporting science and innovation. The Royal Society—with our sister academies—will be setting out our own advice in early 2015.