x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Sadly there are no rocket scientists to lead the way

Luddites are alive and well in the UK as the government cuts funding for research and the science community struggles. Innovation could become buried in the past.

Arkwright's Mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, is the cradle of the factory system in Britain and arguably the birthplace of the industrial revolution in Europe. Sir Richard Arkwright, a barber and wig maker by training, left Lancashire in 1770 to set up in the Peak District because he wanted to develop his invention, the water frame, away from prying eyes. The foundations of the barracks where he kept a small militia to keep Luddites at bay can still be seen at the centre of his glowering five-storey mills. 

Unfortunately modern-day Luddites lurk everywhere in Britain where the science community struggles to be heard by an establishment that inclines, through its own education, towards the arts and humanities. Britain's Royal Society recently warned that impending cuts to university research departments could irreversibly damage British science. Cuts of 20 per cent to the £8 billion (Dh45.32bn) funding regime would mean "game over", the Royal Society said. The UK has a success story to tell in science and real achievements on which to build. The country's science base is the most productive among the world's leading economies and its quality is second only to the US.

Science has been an important factor in productivity growth and has underpinned the UK's economic prosperity over the past two decades. Some of the world's major innovations were created in the UK, including the World Wide Web. Apple's iPod was the creation of a British-educated designer. Groundbreaking research, backed by public funding, in nano technology, lasers, stem cells and nuclear fission continues here and the technologies that will be needed to fight climate change - carbon capture and storage, photovoltaics and fuel cells - could easily come from a British lab or from a British-based company.

Yet, even after recent investment, UK public science spending remains relatively low by international standards. While most major economies have responded to the global recession by boosting their investments in science, Britain is heading down a different track. Perhaps the government believes industry can pay for science directly. After all, the UK's private sector invests £16bn in research and development each year, double the amount the government puts in.

But much of the private-sector money is invested in research and development in Britain because of, not instead of, the publicly funded research base. In an age of globalisation, investment will be made only in those countries where the intellectual, financial and fiscal environment is attractive. In the short term, funding cuts will mean research graduates will lose their positions. The depth and quality of research will suffer. Longer term, the perception that science is in decline will put youngsters off entering that field or others such as science, engineering, technology and mathematics. The most talented individuals will probably head for other countries, notably the US, which has long been a haven for British-born talent.

According to the Institute of Physics, the UK produces only 2,500 physics graduates a year. Slashing funding for science cannot help but damage efforts to persuade bright children that there are more exciting things to do than sit on a trading desk each day, no matter how tempting the bonus. If the politicians are serious about rebalancing the UK's economy away from financial services and towards high-tech engineering and manufacturing, the research departments of our leading universities must be protected from the worst-case budget cuts of up to a third.

The Canadian experience in implementing severe public spending cuts from 1994 to 1999 is frequently cited as a reference point for the UK's dilemma. But in Canada it was recognised that publicly funded science was necessary to stimulate growth. Science investments were squeezed less than other areas of public spending and were reinvested in more quickly, once finances improved, to the extent that the Canadian Foundation for Innovation was set up in 1997 and 2,000 new research chairs were created in 1999.

Entrepreneurs such as Arkwright hid their inventions from the state for as long as they dared. Now scientists depend on the state, if not directly, through the environment public funding can create. The risk of slash and burn is that the green shoots would also be snuffed out. business@thenational.ae