UK science minister Lord Sainsbury presents the government's case on science funding

As Chemistry World’s recent editorial illustrated (See Chemistry World, January 2005, p2), Exeter University’s decision to stop offering a single honours degree in chemistry provoked widespread concern. As science minister I share that concern. To minimise the impact, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has put plans in place to ensure there will be no decline in the number of chemistry places in the south-west.

As all our universities are autonomous bodies, the closure was ultimately a decision for Exeter. Neither the government nor HEFCE has the power to compel universities to keep individual courses or departments open, but we are concerned that universities are given the incentive to provide the courses that will keep the UK prosperous in the future.

This is why at the end of last year, the government asked HEFCE to give advice on what intervention is necessary to protect higher education courses deemed to be of national strategic importance. They include science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and I look forward to seeing HEFCE’s report.

The government is determined to create the best possible conditions for British companies to innovate so that we can compete against countries such as China, which have five per cent of our wage costs.

That is why we have increased the science budget substantially. In 1997/98, the science budget was ?1.3 billion and by 2007/8 this will rise to ?3.3 billion. This has enabled research councils to raise substantially the amount of research they support and to start repairing our scientific infrastructure.

We have also set ourselves ambitious goals for the future in the government’s 10-year science and innovation investment framework and the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) five-year programme. We want to increase the level of knowledge intensity in the UK, as measured by the ratio of R&D to national gross domestic product, from its current level of about 1.9 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP by around 2014.

If we achieve this, it would secure the UK a leading place among major European countries and substantially close the gap between the UK and the US, the best performing, innovation-driven major economy.

As well as substantially increasing the science budget, the government has also made other major policy changes to improve our rate of knowledge transfer. We have had three major schemes to increase our rate of knowledge transfer, University Challenge, Science Enterprise Centres and the Higher Education Innovation Fund. In the last six years we have spent ?169.5 million on these activities, which have now been merged into one third-leg funding stream, and, over the next three years, we will be spending ?187 million on them. These schemes have been extremely successful and we have seen a major cultural change in our universities.

We have also introduced R&D tax credits for small and large companies, which have so far been worth ?600 million.

The government has also pulled together all the DTI’s funding that supports pre-competitive applied R&D into the new technology strategy. And we are giving the technology strategy strong financial support. The government’s 10-year science and innovation investment framework, published in July, announced an increase in funding for the technology strategy and programme - ?320 million between 2005 and 2008 - more than doubling the previous budget. This will help to exploit the UK’s strong science base and ease the transition of ideas from the laboratory to the market.

I believe that in the UK we have a major opportunity today to use our scientific and technological skills to create wealth and improve the quality of our lives. It is an opportunity we have begun to exploit. But in the future we must innovate, invest and drive this agenda forward hard and fast if we are to create the prosperity for all that we all want to see.

Lord Sainsbury is parliamentary under-secretary of state for science and innovation