Science And Technology Strategy In Troubled Times

Post by Martin Rees on the importance of investment in basic science in the UK, mentioning the role of the Technology Strategy Board and The Royal Society’s The Fruits of Curiosity initiative in clarifying areas for high-impact commercial returns:

Ever since the industrial revolution, science has driven the global economy. As a scientific nation, the UK is, by most indicators, second only to the US. But this is not fully reflected in our economic strength, so where have we gone wrong?

In these tough times, we are refocusing on how best to harness this strength to our national advantage. Political responsibility for nurturing our academic talent and for unlocking its economic benefit now rests with a single “super-ministry”: the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and particularly in the hands of Lords Mandelson and Drayson.

It seems clear in retrospect that this country was precariously overdependent on its financial sector; so the new ministry’s aim should be to ensure that our science and engineering strength enables us to emerge from the downturn with a more diversified economy. There should plainly be special boosts for sectors ripe for exploitation – via, for instance, the Technology Strategy Board. But is important that long-term prospects – and the strength and breadth of the UK’s academic base – should not be jeopardised.

It is in our interests to support excellence right across the board – and indeed it’s affordable even in these straitened times. The Royal Society has convened a group with wideranging expertise (it contains two former science ministers, two Nobel prizewinners, and others with commercial experience) to study the long-term value of science to the economy. Its report will be entitled The Fruits of Curiosity – a phrase that captures the value of science. Most great breakthroughs start with the curiosity of the scientist, but in science, engineering and medicine the payoff for research and development can take decades to appear rather than years.

In this particular context, interesting comments by The Guardian’s Tim Radford on the perils of trying to predict the future, including:

Ironically, bioengineering has been with us for more than two decades, but after 50 years of costly research, fusion power is as distant as ever. If you spread your bets on the future, you will certainly get some things right. But the Royal Society may be making an even cooler calculation than that: if you invest in science, in the enrichment of our understanding of the physical world, you cannot lose. Knowledge is power. Understanding is wealth. And somewhere along the line, some of this research will turn into jobs, economic growth and financial wealth too. It’s just a question of which.

Regarding forecasting the future, see also the views of futurist Paul Saffo.

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