On this morning's Today Programme (about 1hr35m in) Sir Paul Nurse and Vince Cable were talking about science and innovation spending, following the launch of a report from the Royal Society.
One of the key points that Sir Paul made is that the UK is “excellent at science” but that we were not exploiting it as well as we could. This is well-documented, and chimes with a recent LSE paper on growth which said: “The UK punches above its weight with a strong science base and an internationally dynamic higher education sector … But commercialisation of their insights and inventions has been historically weak”
The strong science base is a major asset for the UK economy, but as the Royal Society's report points out, a strong research ecosystem needs more than basic research: we need a strong performance in both science and innovation.
In the Today Programme Sir Paul Nurse argued that the UK needs to spend a higher percentage of GDP on science and innovation to keep pace with our competitors, but Vince Cable argued that it is the outcome of spending – not the amount of spending – that is important. Cable has a point, but there are areas where more spending would impact on outcomes.
We know that the UK can struggle at innovation, and what is more support for innovation is considerably lower than support for science (approximately £400 million p.a. versus £4.6 billion p.a). This means that important programmes such as Smart are highly over-subscribed and new initiatives such as the Catapult centres may already be suffering from capacity constraints. We believe that the innovation budget should be increased, or at the very least maintained, in the coming spending review. Along these lines, Sir Paul Nurse called for the science ring-fence to be maintained. At EEF we would argue that innovation should also be included in the ring-fence.
There are costs associated with ring-fencing. As Cable pointed out, ring-fences put additional pressure on non-protected budgets. And a report from the Treasury Select Committee this weekend, highlighted this point, arguing that when it comes to the Spending Review any areas of ring-fencing must be properly explained taking into account the economic impact of the decision.
So why should science and innovation get a ring-fence? As the Royal Society report points out, “turning the tap off and then on again disrupts discovery and innovation, hampers the long term approached needed to deal with [long-term socio economic] challenges, and makes it difficult to capitalise on past investments”.
It's a long term game, and stable funding matters.