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Science at the centre of Britain’s future prosperity

Lord Mandelson

By Lord Mandelson

Secretary of State

9 Jun 2009, Science Museum’s Centenary Event, Science Museum, London


Thanks Chris for that kind introduction… I have to ask if when inviting me to speak at this event several weeks ago, you knew more than I did about how my Ministerial responsibilities might change.

Every time I come here, I feel young again, or perhaps younger. And of course, every day hundreds of children and their parents walk through this Museum’s doors, check in online or meet one of your outreach teams. You are so active, your reach is so great.

What follows is wide-eyed amazement, lively debate and exciting experiments, which have a profound impact on education and experience. It’s never boring.

And what these visitors and students take away with them is a better understanding of the immense possibilities and positive difference knowledge of this subject can bring. And an eagerness to learn more that can help us inspire the next generation of UK scientists and engineers, without whom we would not have such a safe and prosperous country. And they are essential to us achieving our ambitions, as a country.

As you know, at the Reshuffle we created the new Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Why do that? Why bring responsibility for business policy together with science, higher and further education, skills and innovation policy?

New World, New Priorities

The answer is because a new world is emerging. One on the edge of a new industrial revolution. That’s driven by new technologies and the world’s shift to low-carbon. And where global competition will be even tougher.

And I hate the gloom mongers and the pessimists, who talk us down just because other countries are advancing and catching up.

This is a world in which the UK – with its expertise in high-value manufacturing and energy, education and health-care, financial and business services, and a strong science base, supported by both basic and applied research – can be competitive.

But to realise that potential, now is the time that we need to define these and the other comparative advantages that will secure our global lead in this future.

Achieving that ambition, in my view and the Prime Minister’s view, has major implications for the way we do business in Government. How we align Government’s strategic approach to those policies that sharpen our competitiveness – like science and innovation or enterprise and regulation, like skills and research – to ensure the UK can win the jobs and markets that new national and global industries offer.

What Government has to do is create policy frameworks in which businesses can take decisions without that framework shifting and moving around.

Building on the success of our world-class universities and further education system to equip our people for a lifetime of opportunity in a competitive global economy.

Defending a business environment that drives enterprise and innovation and empowers consumers.

Maintaining the UK’s research excellence and the principles which govern scientific independence and enable some of our brightest minds to think the big ideas that will shape all of our lives in this new century.

And targeting Government action and support on those areas where it can make the most difference: enabling UK regional and global success in the key sectors, markets and technologies of the future; and enabling more of our innovative small businesses to develop into high-growth enterprises.

By establishing the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, we’re bringing together the expertise across Government that can make that happen and make Government intervention even more effective. It puts the policy levers that will deliver the vision we set out in our New Industry, New Jobs paper, back in April for the UK’s competitive future, in one place.

It will combine my former Department’s capabilities in shaping the enterprise environment, analysing the strengths and needs of British industry, building strategies for industrial success across global markets and better regulation; with DIUS’s expertise in maintaining world-class universities, expanding access to higher education – a record I am proud of from the last 10 years, investing in the UK’s long-term science and research base and shaping skills policy and innovation through bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board.

We’re starting from a good place. Over the last ten years, we’ve worked hard with you and others across education and business to boost our science base.

Our ring-fenced, and it is ring-fenced, science and research budget has more than doubled in real terms since 1997. It is precious to the Prime Minister, and Lord Drayson and I are committed to protecting and raising investment. There have also been more successful university spin-outs from our research base during the last ten years. This was one of the objectives set out in my 1998 White Paper “Driving the Knowledge Economy”.

The value of that knowledge and our ability to turn it into growing businesses is going to matter more and more.

All around us are examples of Britain’s ability to take a good idea and turn it into an enterprise that creates jobs and opportunities for people beyond the workshop and the laboratory. And that’s a strength on which our new Department is going to be focussed on building.

Conclusion

The road from late-night brainwave to scientific breakthrough, then commercial success is a long, hard and rocky road to travel. As a Government we’re working hard to make it a little easier. But it starts with a thirst for knowledge and love of invention. The sparks of innovation have to be nurtured.

Over the last hundred years the Science Museum has helped feed that spirit for countless British innovators. It’s helped explain and show the role of science in our lives in all its glory.

Founded by passionate collectors dedicated to scientific discovery and British innovation, it has sought throughout its history to educate and enthuse.

When I recall what Bennet Woodcroft wrote to his assistant over 100 years ago, “Get the Comet Engine in all its filth”. He secured this and other pieces of British industrial history like Stephenson’s Rocket for generations of visitors to observe and learn from in the future.

I’m going to visit the Rocket shortly as it gets my vote. It’s an idea that changed lives – a theme still running through this museum today. And its commitment to progress remains as important to the UK’s advance as a society, and success as a leading global economy in this century as the last.

I’m proud to be here to celebrate that fact, and look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead to help inspire the next generations of British scientist and engineers to even greater discoveries