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The Rt. Hon. Alistair Darling MP, Former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
Institute of Civil Engineers , 21 November 2006
Before I start, I understand that this is one of the last engagements for John O’Reilly, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). He is moving on to become Vic Chancellor of Cranfield University. Thanks and congratulations.
Awards recognise and reward universities with an excellent track record in Knowledge Transfer.
Science is vital for our future.
And we have a lot to be proud of.
£3.5 billion of Department of Trade and Industry’s budget, goes to Science and Innovation. And so it should.
In the global economy in which we now live we will only prosper if we are at the forefront of innovation and invention.
Many developing countries have built up their manufacturing and are now the world’s major source for many key products.
China produces 70% of the world’s photocopiers, 50% of cameras and 25% of textiles. At wages that are a fraction of those in Europe and the United States.
That’s why knowledge transfer – what we are celebrating this evening - is now more important than ever as we face the challenge of globalisation.
And we are a nation of inventors. From Harrison’s chronometer to Faraday’s electric motor,
Bell’s telephone to Logie Baird’s television,
British science and innovation has changed the way we see the modern world.
And, at the same time, it has changed our economy.
The awards this evening demonstrate and celebrate this range of British scientific innovation.
The awards cover research in a range of disciplines - medicine, electronics, finance, computing and the environment.
This evening I want to emphasise the importance of science and innovation to our economy and our society. Its importance cannot be over estimated for our future prosperity.
We’re living in a time of massive change across the world. And this change is happening on a timescale we could hardly imagine even ten years ago.
Globalisation can, if we don’t make the right response, brings uncertainty and insecurity.
But globalisation can also bring huge opportunities provided we are ready to seize them. We can’t compete on low wages and or low skills, and nor should we. But we can and must compete on quality and excellence. And particularly on our ability to innovate.
So the challenge is there. And we are well placed to meet it.
The UK is restructuring its economy rapid and effectively. We lead Europe in a number of knowledge-based industries such as aerospace and pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, mobile communications and photonics.
We have developed new business opportunities in the creative industries and micro and nanotechnology.
Today, the UK nano and microtechnology industry has a turnover of £23 billion, employs around 23,000 people directly and supports a further 225,000 employed in related sectors, such as manufacturing.
We lead Europe in knowledge-based and high-tech businesses.
We are good at engineering.
Our record of scientific discovery is one of the best in the world underpinning our future prosperity.
But being good at science is just the start. It’s what you do with it that matters.
If we are to truly compete in the global economy, then we need to do more to transfer knowledge from the laboratory to the market place.
Exactly what we are celebrating tonight.
Today’s scientists are becoming partners to business – taking discoveries off the drawing board and onto the shop shelves.
In the coming years, the countries that will prosper will be those that can compete not just on intellectual strength - but on high technology.
Those that can attract the highest-skilled people. Who have the potential to innovate.
And, most importantly, those that can turn that good science into good commercial opportunity.
That’s where government will focus its resources in the future. Driving on initiatives like Higher Education Innovation Fund and the Technology Strategy Board.
And around 80% of the Science Budget is currently delivered through the eight Research Councils.
Higher Education Innovation Fund provides £110 million a year to universities, to help them to develop links between their research base and business.
In the last three years alone, 25 university spin-out companies – now valued at £1.5 billion - have been floated on the stock market.
500 start-up companies have emerged from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council sponsored research. Over 45% of EPSRC research grants are in partnership with other ‘user’ organisations.
A great return on our investment. And a great result for British scientific research.
40.But we’ve still got to do more to translate our outstanding ability to invent into goods and services we can sell.
Ten years ago, it used to be a national sport to beat ourselves up about the poor exploitation of research – good at science, but don’t reap the rewards. And there was some truth in it.
But we have seen one of the greatest transformations over the last decade.
Back in 1997, we looked to the USA, who’d had been taking the lead in championing links between science and business for 20 years.
Now, some of our top UK universities are catching up with the best in the US.
Comparisons show that UK universities produce roughly equivalent number of patents as their US counterparts and also produce a far higher number of spin outs per £1 million of research. And there are many examples.
The Financial Times commented earlier this year: “The days when critics could bemoan the country’s failure to cash in on its world-class research base may be drawing to a close”.
But all that is still not enough. Because across the world other countries are catching up.
If this progress is to continue, it is first of all vital to continue to fund universities and research in science and innovation.
In 1997, the science budget was just £1.3 billion. By 2008, it will have more than doubled in real terms.
We have invested over £3 billion for the renewal of scientific facilities in universities after years of no investment.
Our success tomorrow, in science and business in the global economy, depends on unleashing our creativity today.
So we will continue to invest in research and education. In the next few months we will decide how much to spend on science and innovation – as part of the Spending Review – in the years to 2011.
And there is a choice. Some say we don’t need to spend more. We believe that we do – because it is vital to our economic interest to do so.
China and India are turning out 5 million graduates a year in Engineering, Science and Technology.
That is the competition.
The number of science undergraduates in the UK has gone up by a quarter since 1997. But it is not enough.
Adequate funding and more encouragement to study science are essential. But we also must do more to be at the centre of global scientific excellence and innovation.
I will be opening the first international UK Research Council office when I visit Beijing next week and we hope to open more in other key countries.
UK science always has been a tremendous force for good in the world. And been at the forefront of some of the most important discoveries that have changed the world.
UK scientists have transformed our world.
Science, and biotechnology, is not just our key to surviving in the world economy, it is the key to our survival.
Smallpox has already been eradicated. Polio soon will be.
Measles and meningitis are no longer the threats to life they once were.
Telecoms and the internet have not just transformed communications in the developed world but in some of the remotest and poorest parts of the globe. And there is more to be done.
Stem cell research, for example, has tremendous potential to benefit patients with conditions that currently have no effective cure.
From juvenile diabetes to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to spinal cord injury.
The US Government has blocked federal funding for stem cell research. It may not be welcome there but stem cell research IS welcome in the UK.
We have the expertise, the will to convert science into opportunity.
Where once science expanded our horizons, from British shores to the New World, innovations from air travel to email and Skype are now shrinking our world.
Globalisation is the challenge. The response is, to borrow a familiar slogan, the “appliance of science”.
Because it’s good for Britain. And because Britain happens to be very good at it too.