David Willetts speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellows Forum

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by Universities and Science Minister David Willetts comparing science and innovation in the UK and the US.

The Rt Hon David Willetts

It is a great honour to be here in the company of so many distinguished scientists. I warmly congratulate those of you who have just been elected to this world famous academy. It is a tribute to your hard work and the greatness of American science. And I know from speaking to fellows of our Royal Society, that no matter how many other awards follow, being elected as a fellow by the most esteemed scientists in one’s own country is often the honour they cherish most – and that others most covet!

It is also inspiring to be here in Chicago, where you have done and still do so much great science. It was here in December 1942, in a former squash court under the athletic fields of the University of Chicago, that the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place, overseen by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. The Atomic Energy Commission later said it was a gamble conducting a possibly catastrophic experiment in one of the most densely populated areas of the nation. But Fermi’s calculations were right and he joined a long list of Nobel laureates affiliated with the University of Chicago. And when I visited the Argonne Lab on Thursday I was presented with a small piece of the graphite from that original nuclear reactor – a very special gift I will treasure.

As the British Minister for Universities and Science I want to draw on my experience to compare science and innovation in the UK and the US. Of course I recognise that the sheer power and scale of America’s research and innovation effort exceeds that of any other country, even mine. Nevertheless I believe that we have some distinctive British strengths which complement your own. And I am confident that alongside the US, Britain is the best place in the world to do science. It is right that we cooperate. And we have been.

The UK-US scientific partnership is one of the world’s strongest. Between 2008 and 2012 we published almost 90,000 co-authored UK-US publications. And crucially they had nearly twice the impact of the average paper in either of our countries. Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama have agreed that science and higher education are the foundation stones of a 21st century economy, and that the UK and US have a responsibility to further their global leadership roles in these essential fields. The UK-US Joint Statement on Science, Innovation and Higher Education, signed in May 2011 during President Obama’s state visit to the UK and refreshed during the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in March 2012, places science and innovation at the heart of the bilateral relationship. And the new UK-US Global Innovation Initiative, launched last year by Secretary of State John Kerry and our Foreign Secretary William Hague, extends this further by encouraging joint research partnerships on key global problems with emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil.

During my visit this week we have been able to take this cooperation further, especially in the area of synthetic biology. Following the success of the Science and Innovation Network’s US syn bio campaign, Boston University, Harvard University, University of Warwick, and the University of Sao Paolo, have been awarded a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) grant to develop transatlantic syn bio research workshops and to expand international syn bio collaborations. After the successful syn bio mission to San Francisco of 10 UK syn bio start-ups, led by several members of the Syn Bio Leadership Council including Lionel Clarke, Belinda Clarke, Dick Kitney and Paul Freemont, Synbiobeta will be held at Imperial College London in April. Synbiobeta is the premiere syn bio start-up conference, and 5 US companies and 5 US venture capital (VC) investors are already confirmed to attend in the UK and speak. An experienced US investor is also looking to set up a syn bio VC fund in the UK.

It is not surprising that many British scientists choose to work in the US at some stage in their career. This is not – as it is sometimes portrayed – some sort of alarming brain drain. Academic exchange is something we should celebrate and promote. We know, for instance, that mobile researchers on average produce papers with a higher impact. In a globalised world it is as foolish to be parochial about research – to cling on to every clever and inspirational researcher as proof of our excellence – as it is to be insular about students who want to study abroad. And of course this exchange of researchers goes both ways. Indeed we have the highest bilateral flow of researchers in the world between the US and the UK, with over 23,000 moves in either direction from 1996 to 2011. One of our most prominent and charismatic scientists, the Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, is a case in point. He left Britain to head up the Rockefeller University in New York – a very exciting job – and came back to be President of the Royal Society. I am confident that the exchange of people and ideas can only be good for our countries, as well as for the individuals involved.

However, as we Brits are sometimes teased for being excessively apologetic, I would like to focus on 3 distinctive strengths of science and research in the UK.

Our first advantage, as you might expect a Brit to say, is that history matters. Indeed the data revolution makes it even more important. I buy the argument associated with Jim Gray and Tony Hey in their book ‘The Fourth Paradigm’, that the next generation of scientific discovery will be data-driven as previously unrecognised patterns are discovered by analysing massive data sets. I don’t need to tell you about the data deluge. But if data analysis is the future then you need good quality data sets, including ones tracking back into the past. In the UK we have some of the world’s best and most complete data-sets in healthcare, demographics, agriculture and the environment.

Our long and stable history means we have reliable data stretching further back in time than just about any country. Their value is increasing with new ways to access and analyse them. Our meteorological records in central England provide a continuous temperature record since 1659. We can use weather reports in captain’s log books from centuries ago to track climate change. Indeed one of the reasons for our key role in the development of modern statistical techniques is that we had more statistics to analyse than anyone else. R. A. Fisher, the evolutionary biologist and founder of modern statistical theory, began his career at Rothamsted: some of its agricultural experiments have been running since 1850, making them the longest in the history of science. The Continuous Plankton Recorder has been running since 1931, making it one of the world’s longest-running marine biological monitoring programmes. Even in the seemingly new field of space weather, the most energetic solar storm ever known was recorded by a magnetoscope at Kew in 1859. Without this long data record we would not know how violent such events could be.

Our National Health Service (NHS) has a wealth of long-term clinical data linked to unique patient identifiers and well established procedures to maintain individual confidentiality. The Prime Minister recently set the challenge of sequencing the genomes of 100,000 NHS patients, starting with cancer and rare diseases. Linking anonymised sequence and clinical data will allow us to investigate relationships between genetics and disease and target care to individuals better. I believe there are many potential partnership opportunities in this developing field of genomic medicine and in other areas of our life sciences strategy.

There is now a shared challenge for scientists across the world which is to make the best use of the massive amount of data you now have. And that means shared high standards for data curation ensuring that the data behind the papers you publish is machine readable and so usable by other scientists across the world. This is a challenge we are very aware of in Britain after the excellent report by Geoffrey Boulton and the Royal Society on science as an open enterprise and which the Royal Society continues to address. It is an issue that we have focused on in the Research Data Transparency Board that I chair.

Let me now turn to a second distinctive strength of British science. We can be very nimble and light on our feet. After all when funding is limited, you have to be extra creative. When Ernest Rutherford’s team were trying to split the atom and funding was once more about to run out he is supposed to have called them together and said: “We’ve got no more money so now we must think.”

There is a serious point here. You beat us hands down on massively powerful computers, particle accelerators and lasers. Yet what we lack in power we can make up for in precision and ingenuity. I see this when I visit the facilities we have at Harwell near Oxford. The Diamond Light Source is not the world’s most powerful synchrotron, but it is the most precise. The Vulcan PetaWatt laser is physically much smaller, but it competes head to head with the National Ignition Facility on power. Your neutron scattering facility at Oak Ridge has five times the raw accelerator power of our ISIS but we are at least as productive because we have successfully concentrated on a wide range of instrumentation and support for users. This is true way beyond Harwell. Our computers may not be the most powerful, but we have smart software which reduces the number of calculations you need to reach any given result and that makes them very energy efficient. For 30 years we opted out of space launch technology so have to cadge a lift off someone else to get our satellites into orbit. You can find yourself paying hundreds of millions of dollars to launch a big satellite. That gave us a real incentive to make smart, lightweight small satellites. We now produce 40% of the world’s small satellites, with Surrey Satellites the market leader.

Being light on our feet means using our modest resources with maximum efficiency. With just over 35 of the world’s spending on research and development, we produce over 6% of the world’s publications and 16% of the world’s most highly cited papers. We produce 3.7 publications per million dollars spent, compared to 1.4 in the US. We net 43 citations per million dollars of overall research and development (R&D), compared to 16 in the US. And despite America’s dazzling innovation record, the UK actually produces more than twice as many spin-outs per million dollars spent on R&D than the US. We create a spin-out for every £23.7 million spent, whereas in the US it is one for every £55.9 million. I would claim that this makes the UK science the most productive in the G8.

Our third advantage is an extraordinary combination of breadth and geographical concentration. We have excellent research teams in over 400 distinctive areas. No other comparable economy has anything like this range of world-class disciplines – including of course the social sciences and humanities. This breadth matters because none of the major challenges facing the world today – climate change, neuro-degenerative disease, energy security - can be tackled by one discipline alone. So this breadth really matters. All this is all happening not across a continent but on one small island. Indeed the curve linking Oxford, Imperial, University College London (UCL) and Cambridge is only about 100 miles across. Our other great clusters - around Manchester for example, or linking Edinburgh (represented here by Mary Bownes) and Glasgow, or Birmingham, Warwick and Nottingham (represented here by Martyn Poliakoff) are even tighter. In these clusters we really are breaking down barriers between academia, industry and government. That makes us exceptionally connected.

History, creativity and geography are three important advantages. But of course there are also lessons that the UK can learn from you. And one of the main lessons I take from the US may seem paradoxical. It is the evidence of the crucial role that public agencies and funding can play in technological and scientific advance. You have a lot of public support for risk takers and for innovation. What Fred Block calls America’s ‘hidden developmental state’ is easy to underestimate because it is divided between several different agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Health. As Mariana Mazzucato has observed, the algorithm that turned Google into such a colossal success was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The very first technology companies that formed on the West Coast were actually set up to serve first the US Navy and then the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the forerunner of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Back in the 1950s the Cold War and the space race meant the Department of Defense was pushing for ever-faster integrated circuits and greater computing capacity. This led to funding for firms like Intel – and the Silicon Valley was born. Later federal funding for research into computer networking at Stanford was instrumental to the development of the networking technologies that eventually became Cisco.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has of course famously excelled at exploiting high-risk, high-pay off ideas. With its impressive budget it is able to bridge the gap between fundamental discoveries and new military capabilities. Without DARPA we would not have had The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) – an important precursor to today’s Internet. Early work on the personal computer might never have happened.

This powerful creative role for government agencies can be seen beyond the IT and defence industries. President Reagan’s Orphan Drugs Act of 1983 also marked a major step change for new pharmaceuticals. The Office of Orphan Products Development has successfully brought more than 400 new drugs and products for rare diseases to market since the Act. In the decade before the Act fewer than 10 such products made it to market.

This role of public agencies is often hidden behind a rhetoric which attributes all these gains to sturdy individualists acting on their own. The role of the Federal government in driving scientific and technological advance is what of course the great Alexander Hamilton, your first Treasury Secretary, called for in his Federalist Papers. It is very different from Thomas Jefferson’s picture of sturdy independent farmers. Indeed that is why America has been neatly described as a Hamiltonian state hidden behind Jeffersonian rhetoric.

There is a common thread here. It is the role of government and its agencies in bearing some of the risks of innovation. Sometimes in the UK we beat up on ourselves and say that we do not have the culture of risk-taking that you have here in the US. But this is not some inherent weakness of the British. The real problem is that we were often expecting companies to step in earlier and take on more risk than in the US. This is why our Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is so important – it takes some of the closer to market risks which in the US are borne by DARPA or the National Institute of Health. We should not be defensive or embarrassed by attempts to offer public support for innovation. Indeed, I am pleased to say that we are developing the kind of approach to supporting innovation that has been so successful in the US. We have brought in Catalyst funds which finance innovation all the way from the research lab to the market. Our 7 new catapult centres are shared R&D facilities co-funded by government and business.

Thanks to the TSB and these new initiatives a huge variety of exciting innovations are now making it through the so-called Valley of Death. Fantastic new products like Nano-Owl flying binoculars, developed by a small UK company called Swarm Systems, which allow soldiers or the emergency services to check out the terrain hundreds of metres away, undetected. The user simply has to point to a spot on a map on their phone, and within two minutes of throwing the binoculars into the air a tiny camera, propelled by 4 rotors, relays real-time video images back to their phone. Another great recent example is small company Zeta, which used a TSB grant to bring a world first in ultra efficient lighting to market. Their long-life bulb doesn’t take time to light up, doesn’t flicker, lasts 10 years, uses much less energy than the standard eco bulbs from China and doesn’t contain mercury or glass so it needs no specialist recycling.

The US government has not been afraid to back technology. And neither are we. We have identified 8 great technologies where we can have a lead alongside the US. Of course we are not claiming perfect foresight here. But like the US we are supporting key emerging technologies and managing and limiting the risk associated with them. Let me end by briefly listing what I have called the 8 great technologies.

  1. The data deluge will transform scientific enquiry and many industries too. The UK can be in the vanguard of the big data revolution and energy-efficient computing.

  2. There is a surge in data coming from satellites which do not just transmit data but collect data by earth observation. We have opportunities to be a world leader in satellites and especially analysing the data from them.

  3. There are particular challenges in collecting data from a range of sources in designing robots and other autonomous systems. We can already see that this is a general purpose technology with applications ranging from assisted living for disabled people through to nuclear decommissioning.

  4. Modern genetics has emerged in parallel with the IT revolution and there is a direct link – genetic data comes in digital form. The future is the convergence of ‘dry’ IT and ‘wet’ biological sciences. One of the most ambitious examples of this is synthetic biology – the design and engineering of biological parts and systems to heal us, feed us, and fuel us.

  5. Regenerative medicine will open up new medical techniques for repairing and replacing damaged human tissue.

  6. Advances in agricultural technologies can put the UK at the forefront of the next green revolution.

  7. Just as we understand the genome of a biological organism so we can think of the fundamental molecular identity of an inorganic material. Here too we can increasingly design new advanced materials from first principles. This will enable technological advances in sectors from aerospace to construction. Quantum photonics is an exciting area where advanced materials and digital IT converge.

  8. One of the most important applications of advanced materials is in energy storage. This and other technologies will enable the UK to gain from the global transition to new energy sources.

Our Chancellor George Osborne has backed these technologies with strategic investments already totaling over a billion dollars.

Today I have outlined the distinctive assets Britain has when it comes to science. These assets mean that we complement our friends in America rather well. We are each other’s closest partner in scientific research as well of course as in security – indeed these 2 links at the heart of the special relationship both trace their origins back to those massive wartime scientific collaborations like the Manhattan Project, a project which had its roots in Chicago of course.

It is indeed a special relationship – somewhere between outright competition and simple co-operation. Especially in some of these secret or recherché areas of science you need a trusted comparator who does things differently but with whom you can compare notes. RAF Fylingdales contributes to the US led work in tracking space debris using UK designed algorithms. AWE Aldermaston have extremely sophisticated programs for modeling nuclear reactions that complement modeling done in the US.

In the UK we are naturally always keen to check on how we measure up to the US in the Nobel Prizes league, and we do very respectably. But an interesting aspect of the Nobel story is what our 2 nations share. Over the last 12 years there have been 4 Nobel Laureates that both US/UK claim as nationals, including Professor Michael Levitt whom I met at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm in December. He studied physics at Kings College in London - as did his fellow prize winner Peter Higgs. He generously says some of the work for which he won the Nobel Prize Chemistry was done at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Now he is doing great things in Stanford.

This is just one example of the ties that bind our 2 great nations. Our relationship is a combination of competition and collaboration that keeps both our countries at the forefront of the world for science. I look forward to today’s new fellows forming new ties with our scientists in the UK and across the world.

Published 7 July 2014