"Undertaking research to understand how the world works is the real joy of science. It's the route to many of the most groundbreaking discoveries. The Government believes in doing it. So does industry. So do I"
Royal Society, London
20 November 2008
University Research Fellowships 25th Anniversary
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Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to this celebration of the Royal Society's University Fellowship Scheme.
It's been fascinating to hear Tara [Shears] and then Frances [Ashcroft] talk about the importance of winning these fellowships for their careers in science - both today and 25 years ago.
Listening to them reminded me of my own time as a research student. In 1983, I'd just begun a PhD in robotics.
That experience was the basis for everything I've done in my career - from working in the car industry to setting up a biotech company to becoming a government minister. It taught me to work things out for myself and - in line with this institution's motto - not to accept anything on hearsay. Especially not in politics.
In the same way, the intellectual freedom and the easy movement between institutions that these fellowships enable has helped the recipients to go on to make their mark as scientists. In medicine and engineering. In geology and astronomy.
Given my own background, you might expect me to be more interested in applied rather than pure research. Far from it.
For almost 350 years, the prestige of the Royal Society - and this country's reputation for science - have been built on curiosity-driven inquiry and the pursuit of excellence.
Undertaking research to understand how the world works is the real joy of science. It's the route to many of the most groundbreaking discoveries. The Government believes in doing it. So does industry. So do I.
And for the last 25 years, it's the blue-skies research conducted by many of the fellows gathered here that has helped them to reshape scientific discourse and has generated tangible benefits for mankind.
It has made this one of the most competitive and sought-after programmes across Europe, and my department is proud to help finance it.
Tonight, I want to talk briefly about my priorities for UK science - and though it may well be a case of preaching to the converted this evening, it will also give you a clearer sense of my position.
I do have strong views about the accountability of scientists. The UK needs to excel in chemistry and computing, in physics and pharmacology - but it also has to be comfortable discussing the methods and outcomes of scientific research, comfortable debating the ethical dilemmas that sometimes emerge.
A fortnight ago, I caught Stephen Fry's US travel show on the BBC, where he ventured that the States is an easier place to do science - and to debate it.
Well, he may have been right about that a few ago, but not now. It's this country that has created robust frameworks for stem cell research, for exploring the incredible opportunities posed by nanotechnology.
More than that, we enjoy a real competitive advantage in the UK through our willingness to engage in genuine public dialogue on science. And that's one reason why the Government is going to such lengths to ensure we have an effective science and society strategy.
This goes beyond general scientific literacy. When people understand how scientists operate, when they trust the businesses and policy makers who apply scientific insight, the appetite for bold new technologies increases. Our ability to address the major issues like climate change, global security and disease is enhanced. Our democracy grows stronger.
A critical part of science and society, of course, is the STEM agenda. The alumni of this programme have been pioneering science communicators - Nancy Rothwell, Marcus du Sautoy, Stephen Liddle with his periodic table videos on YouTube, and Brian Cox, who has done so much to convey the importance and excitement of the Large Hadron Collider.
This is crucial work, as we seek a constant flow of young people studying the STEM subjects at undergraduate level and beyond. But I've recently highlighted the problem that while more children now appreciate the importance of science - and enjoy it at school - they still don't appreciate the career options it opens up for them.
We've got to tackle this issue by improving careers advice for young people, and involve the media much more. We need to be explaining to young girls and boys that there's a whole army of engineers responsible for Lewis Hamilton becoming Formula 1 world champion - and that to be part of it requires a certain academic grounding. You do have to do your maths homework. For school pupils who've been inspired by seeing the facilities at CERN on television, we should have the current crop of UK scientists describe how they got to work there. For an undergraduate who sees herself as a future science entrepreneur, we need experts who can advise her on the kinds of experiences that will set her on the right path.
Which brings me to the second point I want to make - about wealth creation.
If I cast my mind back to the 1980s once more, there's no question that we've seen a major change to the way this country operates and to the culture within our universities.
Even in the early 90s, I remember the situation at Oxford University, when any researchers with half an eye on exploring the commercial possibilities arising from their work risked sabotaging their academic careers.
It's thanks to the initiatives brought in under my predecessor Lord Sainsbury, that we're now in a much stronger position.
The Higher Education Innovation Fund started out in 2001 to support knowledge transfer. By 2010/11, it will be worth £150 million.
The Research Councils are placing the right emphasis on economic impact.
And last year's Sainsbury Review of the UK's science and innovation system provided a clear direction for increasing capacity further and maintaining our global competitiveness - work that's proceeding following this year's innovation white paper.
Again, you can see the way things have changed for the better by looking at the Society's university research fellows. I've been told that the entire URF cohort is responsible for 743 patents and 107 spin-outs; that over 30 per cent of them are actively involved in collaborations with industry.
That's an impressive record, but this is not - unfortunately - a representative sample.
We need to raise our game nationally, because we're simply not producing enough world-leading science-based businesses. There's been no UK Genentech or Google.
Earlier this week, I laid down a challenge to the UK venture capital industry - and to the major UK institutions and pension funds - to start investing seriously in our promising start-ups and spinouts.
This isn't so much about the economic downturn - though early-stage companies urgently need cash to keep going, and the Government will do whatever it takes to protect small businesses.
It's more the fact that the global economy will recover and our scientists and engineers are already at the forefront of next-generation research - nanotech, biotech, clean tech, renewables.
We cannot afford to miss out on these opportunities that are certain to come along in the next few years.
We have to target greater investment at the things we do best, celebrate our successes, achieve critical mass in our research clusters.
I came into this job really believing that the policies the Government has been pursuing on science and innovation are right for the country.
UK science has never been in better shape - and, given all I've just said - it needs to be.
By 2010/11, the science budget will have tripled in little over a decade. The Research Councils have substantial funds to work collaboratively on fundamental issues like global security and our ageing society. We're making every effort to ensure we have the highly-skilled scientists, engineers and technicians to drive our knowledge economy.
It's my responsibility to implement these policies energetically, to make a convincing case for ongoing public investment, and to champion science in every sphere.
Twenty-five years from now, I want the science minister at the 50th anniversary celebration of these fellowships to be in a position to reflect on a quarter century of further progress.
Where the UK continues to be the place of choice for pure research in many fields.
Where schools and universities are turning out class after class of promising mathematicians, scientists and engineers.
Where those scientists make a substantial contribution to public life as teachers, communicators and government advisers.
And, in particular, where science has become the platform for national wealth creation.
Enjoy the rest of your evening, and thanks for listening.