Major review calls for more funding and education initiatives

The UK government is to launch a ’major campaign’ to strengthen school science and overhaul its own science and technology investment, acting on the recommendations of a review by former science minister David Sainsbury, published today. 

A boost for science funding is also expected to be announced on 9 October, when the Chancellor Alistair Darling presents the pre-budget report and Comprehensive Spending Review.

Launching the report, which stresses the importance of science and technology in driving the economy, Sainsbury said that the UK should not try to compete with rapidly-developing nations on costs but ’invest in the future in areas such as knowledge generation, innovation, education, re-training and technological infrastructure.’

’We can be one of the winners in "the race to the top" but only if we run fast,’ he added.

Sainsbury called for measures to drive up the number of pupils taking triple sciences at GCSE and to increase the number of qualified science teachers - particularly in chemistry and physics. He recommends that all secondary schools establish science and engineering clubs within the next five years. A mentoring scheme like the one run by the Institute of Physics to support newly qualified science teachers should be rolled out in all subjects. Careers advice should also be improved to make more young people aware of the opportunities open to science and technology graduates.

Playing catch-up

Sainsbury suggests that UK universities have largely caught up with their US counterparts in turning their research into marketable products, but recommends that the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) - the main stream of funding for university knowledge transfer activities - should be stepped up, and channel more funds to universities that work with small business. 

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Chemistry World’s editorial board, welcomed the strategy. ’Large companies should be funding the work they do with universities,’ he said. ’SMEs are increasingly the growth engine of the economy.’

At the report’s launch, Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave ’some assurances about funding,’ Ebdon said. He expects a ’significant uplift’ in HEIF and more money for science to be announced in the pre budget report on 9 October.

Government departments - which have seen a worrying decline in their R&D budgets - should also push more of their science spending towards small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), Sainsbury adds, while early stage hi-tech start-ups should get more assistance too.

Strategic thinking

The UK’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) - an arms length body that funds near-market R&D with business - also deserves more cash, Sainsbury says. The TSB, working with the Regional Development Agencies, research councils and government departments, should take on the role of coordinating public sector innovation. ’We do need a significantly enhanced and strengthened TSB,’ said Ebdon. ’I don’t think the research councils will be poorer as a result.’

Finally, the review focuses on the UK’s international scientific collaborations: ’The UK needs to make this collaboration a core part of its strategy, and to improve coordination of the bodies involved.’ The research councils should have offices in other countries and, Sainsbury says, the Royal Society should consider setting up a new fellowship scheme and alumni network to help boost UK international cooperation.

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, ’broadly welcomed’ the review’s findings. ’Too often in the past we have not fully capitalised on our advantages because of a fragmented approach to supporting innovation and complacency about the ongoing quality of our science,’ said Martin Rees, the Royal Society’s president. But the report ’must now be backed up with the commitment and sustained financial support necessary to fulfil our potential.’

Ananyo Bhattacharya