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Lord Sainsbury of Turville

JOINT MEETING OF THE PHYSIOLOGICAL SOCIETY AND THE FEDERATION OF EUROPEAN PHYSIOLOGICAL SOCIETIES

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

BRISTOL


Friday, 22 July, 2005

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I spent a day here in Bristol last year, talking to members of Bristol Neuroscience about their work. This was hugely enjoyable from my point of view because I think cognitive neuroscience is one of the most exciting research areas today. During this visit Bridget Lumb told me of this Joint Meeting of the Physiological Society and the Federation of European Physiological Societies, and invited me to come and speak to you this evening, and I was delighted to be able to accept.

I would like to start by saying that the present UK Government believes that science and technology is of critical importance to wealth creation and improving the quality of our lives, and we are determined to make the U.K. one of the best places in the world for science and innovation.

To raise our level of innovation and to meet the Grand Challenges we face in areas such as the environment and health, we look to the research base and universities for three things: world class science; knowledge transfer; and a supply of creative young scientists and engineers.

Let me say a word about each of these areas in turn, starting with world-class basic research. As I’m sure you know the Government has put major extra resources into basic research, increasing the science budget from £1.3 billion in 1997/8 to £3.4 billion by 2007/8. This currently includes £500m a year for the renewal of scientific facilities in universities.

I would like to say something about the funding of research on a European level. The UK recognises that we need to collaborate on a European level to enhance research and development if we are to have any chance of attaining the Lisbon goals of creating the most competitive and knowledge based economy in the world by 2010.

The EU’s main instrument for funding research, technology and innovation, the Framework Programme, is central to creating a European Research Area and in meeting these objectives.

As most of you will be aware the UK took over the Presidency of EU on 1 July. This comes at a key stage of the seventh Framework Programme negotiations and we will aim to put in place the right framework programme to stimulate such investment, in order to create the right climate for research and innovation in Europe. Every effort at the UK Presidency’s disposal will be directed towards making progress on Framework Programme 7 (FP7) so that this crucial instrument of Community research policy is ready by 2007 and able to lever the step-change in research and development that we need by 2010.

As Presidency we also seek to ensure that the proposal for a basic research element in FP7 delivers an European Research Council (ERC) which is independent, and where decisions are made by peer review and solely on the basis of excellence. The structure of the ERC, the role of the Scientific Council, the relationship with other EU institutions and ERC’s decision making processes are clearly crucially important to ensure the credibility and independence of the ERC in the scientific world. In this connection we were greatly encouraged by the list of distinguished scientists which has been chosen by Lord Patten’s committee to be the first members of the Science Council, and who have agreed to serve. As Presidents we will be working with our partners in the Council as well as with the Commission and the Parliament to resolve all these outstanding issues so that the ERC can be up and running in time for the start of FP7.

The second area where the UK Government has made some important policy changes is in the area of Knowledge Transfer.

We have introduced a number of schemes to encourage knowledge transfer, the main one being the Higher Education Innovation Fund which provides incentives for universities to transfer knowledge to industry.

These programs have been very successful in stimulating more knowledge transfer from universities in terms of licensing, patents, spin-off companies and contract work for industry. To take one figure, the market value of university spinouts floated on the stock market in 2004 was £604 million, £100 million more than the Government’s total investment in Knowledge Transfer to date.

The third area I would like to mention is the supply of creative young scientists and engineers.

In spite of what people say, there is no problem in this country in terms of the overall number of young people studying for science and technology degrees. Today there are 120,000 more young people studying for science and technology degrees than in 1997/98 and the percentage of the total number of students taking science and technology degrees has gone up from 38% to 41%. These include large increases in those studying the biological sciences but also a 78% increase in those studying computer sciences and a welcome 38% increase in those studying mathematics.

The physical sciences have remained fairly constant at 50,000 and the only area where there has been a fall in the number of students studying is for engineering and technology degrees, where the number has fallen from 87,000 in 1997/98 to 80,000 in 1999/2000 though this figure seems to have stabilised at this level. It is clear from these figures that we have a specific problem in engineering and technology, and I believe that the main problem here is that young people do not see engineering as exciting and as part of the new knowledge intensive economy.

In the U.K. we regard the strength of our scientific and technological research as a major national asset. With only 1% of the world’s population, we produce 5% of the world’s science which generates 11% of the scientific papers in the world and 12% of all the citations of those papers, including 13% of the most cited. We are second only to the USA for total Nobel Prize winners and have a proud history of important discoveries including penicillin and the double helix.

However, if we in the UK do 5% of the world’s science, it follows that 95% is done elsewhere, and we believe that if we are to stay at the cutting edge of modern science we need to collaborate internationally.

In the last two decades we have seen a surge in scientific collaboration within and across national boundaries. More than half of all scientific articles were co-authored in 1999 compared with 33% in 1986. During the same period the share of international co-authored articles rose from 7% to 17% of all publications. In other words more than one third of co-authored articles were internationally co-authored.

Therefore, to stay at the leading edge of world science and innovation we need to collaborate internationally and we have taken a number of important steps to increase the collaboration of British Scientists with overseas partners.

Our vision in the government is that the UK should be a key hub in the global knowledge economy. This means that we should be a country famed not only for our outstanding record of discovery but also for innovation, a country that invests heavily in business R&D and education and skills, and exports high-tech goods and services to the world. A country with strong science and technology links with the best research around the world: that can stay always at the leading edge.

It is, I think, a very ambitious vision but it is one that the government is committed to achieving in the years ahead.


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