Great Britain: the best place in the world to do science

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

David Willetts announced several new investments in UK science to an audience of scientists, apprentices and schoolchildren at Jodrell Bank.

It’s a pleasure to be here at Jodrell Bank – the iconic home of astronomy in our country and a place that stands out for its work on pulsars, quasars, gravitational lenses and many other heavenly phenomena. But it’s not all about science for science sake. Places like Jodrell Bank or Culham in Oxfordshire have quietly been doing their bit, though pure science, to create jobs and growth for years.

And I’m here because jobs and growth are what this government is all about. We have a long-term economic plan to secure this country’s future; to cut the deficit, cut taxes, create more jobs, cap welfare, reduce immigration and deliver the best schools and skills for young people.

That is our plan, and it’s working. You see that in the economic growth figures, the 1.3 million new jobs, the 25 million people who will pay less in income tax, the 400,000 new businesses now operating in our country and in the record number of our young people who have taken up apprenticeships to develop new skills that will help to secure their future.

The UK employs around 525,000 people in R&D. For every £1 we invest in science, we get up to 50p back – every single year afterwards. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the Midlands not far from here down to the present day, innovation, scientific curiosity and the application of science to the pursuit of economic advantage have always been at the centre of Britain’s story. And today, in a world where competition knows no boundaries and it is as easy to export software from Madras as from Manchester, this matters more than ever.

So science is critical to our future. The last government allowed too many of our eggs to be placed in the basket of financial services, so that when the great financial crash came, Britain suffered a disproportionate blow. We have committed to correct that imbalance, maintaining our spending on science in real terms even as we have been forced to make painful cuts elsewhere to balance the books. We have worked hard to rebuild Britain’s manufacturing base, and above all we have tried to concentrate our efforts on the industries and technologies of the future. And that is why Britain’s skill at and commitment to science is so important.

Look at all that we have created. Here at Jodrell Bank is the home of radio astronomy, associated above all with the great Sir Bernard Lovell. After the War he created the world’s largest steerable radio telescope, using left over military equipment including parts of naval gun turrets for the steering system. It was thought to be a rather eccentric project until it proved to be the only system in the West capable of radar-tracking early Soviet and American satellites.

It is not just Jodrell Bank and radio telescopes. If you are interested in plants and fungi then you look to Kew - the most biologically diverse place in the world. It has over 30,000 different types of living plants, 8 million herbarium specimens and 2 billion seeds in the Millennium Seed Bank. Meanwhile the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire is the hottest place not just on earth but in the known universe. Inside the Joint European Torus there, gaseous fusion fuels are heated to staggering temperatures of over a hundred million degrees celsuis. And down the road at Element 6 in Harwell, there are some of the highest man-made static pressures which are used by De Beers for manufacturing synthetic diamonds. They are incidentally a slightly brackish brown and instead of being used as jewels are more likely to be found at the tip of oil and gas drills.

We can be very proud not just of the quality of our science and research but its diversity. International assessments of our work show we have top-level research teams in over 400 distinctive areas. We are the medium-sized economy with by far the broadest range of disciplines at world-class level. That range is itself an asset as none of the world’s great challenges can be understood through the prism of 1 discipline alone. In particular let me be clear that when I talk about our research and science this includes the social sciences and arts and humanities. I mean everything that helps us understand our universe, our planet, and ourselves.

We have the best, most productive scientific community anywhere in the world. When metrics are used to rank countries for the quality of their scientific output we are outstanding as the country which punches far above its weight. With just over 3% of the world’s spending on research and development, we produce over 6% of the world’s research articles and 16% of the world’s most highly cited papers. We transform our funding into great science more productively than anyone else. And as a result we attract more inward investment for R and D than anywhere else in Europe.

The record speaks for itself. 78 Nobel Prizes over a century is a fantastic historic achievement. But it is not just history; it is what we are achieving today. With 12 Nobel Prizes over the past decade our rate of achievement is if anything going up. We do not rest on historic achievements. Of course we celebrate Newton and Darwin but it is also Watson and Crick and Stephen Hawking. And now the latest scientist to achieve rock-star status is the gentle and unassuming Professor Peter Higgs. His prediction of a sub-atomic particle that gives mass to all the matter in the universe led to 1 of the world’s great scientific projects, the Large Hadron Collider.

Sometimes I am asked why we are good at science. I would hazard an answer. One is our tradition of empiricism which may go back to the sheer diversity and variability of our environment where you look out for the weather and the changes of the seasons. Then there are the rich data sets which our early citizen scientists generated. Our meteorological records in central England provide a continuous temperature record since 1659. We played a key role in the development of modern statistical techniques because 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. From long-term meteorological records to the patient records of the nationwide NHS we have exceptional data records which are the new raw material for scientific investigation.

Another part of the explanation comes from a great book by the economic historian Joel Mokyr, Gifts of Athena. He argues that the Industrial Revolution happened in Britain not only because we participated in the scientific revolution underway for at least a century but also because we had the ability to communicate discoveries and new technologies effectively. Our rich network of learned societies, publications and a lively literary life meant that information spread, and new technical advances were more rapidly absorbed across British society than any other country. Next year the Royal Society will celebrate the 350th anniversary of the world’s oldest continuously published scientific journal – the one that brought us peer review and the preoccupation with precedence in discovery that drives much of the scientific race to this day. To keep those great traditions alive this government has taken a lead in ensuring that publicly funded research does not lie hidden behind pay-walls, but is openly available for everyone to access.

We have also taken a lead in encouraging lively engagement with and discussion about science. This is what National Science and Engineering Week is all about and this year’s starts on Friday at the wonderful Big Bang Fair in Birmingham. It says a lot for science engagement in the UK that last year 1.6 million people participated in Science and Engineering Week. The 4,000 events are not managed from Whitehall, but spring from scientists, engineers and teachers. Attendance at the Big Bang Fair has risen year on year, and over 75,000 schoolchildren, teachers and parents are expected to come through the doors of the NEC during the 4 day event. Last year I remember seeing them clustered around Bloodhound, the fantastic jet powered car which is aiming to break the 1,000mph land speed record. It is being constructed in workshops in Bristol. But as project director Richard Noble said recently: “Land speed record attempts are no longer about some maniac in a tiny car disappearing off into the blue.” These guys are taking the hearts and minds of thousands of kids with them. Their free online resources have been accessed by 2,500 schools and their events team meet around 50,000 children a year. And the mission to stream video and data live from the car to the web while the car is traveling that fast is driving innovation as well.

Near that Bloodhound stall last year there was a display of pea plants which had their own scientific significance. There were 6 of them, all grown in identical conditions. They ranged from the exuberantly flourishing to the manky and misshapen. Schoolchildren were asked which one was the product of genetic modification. They almost all chose the ugly, thin one because they had all picked up the idea that GM was some monstrosity. In truth of course the GM plant was the finest specimen. That is what happens when the public debate loses contact with the scientific evidence.

National Science and Engineering Week is about firing the curiosity of the next generation of scientists. It is about encouraging young people like Fred Turner, who was named Young Engineer of the Year at the age of 17 last year. He wanted to know why his younger brother had ginger hair, so he built his own DNA testing kit at home. Fred’s amazing machine can carry out experiments at a fraction of the cost of existing technology.

If there is 1 area of science that is often cited as the beginning of a lifelong passion it is space and astronomy. A staggering 90% of physics students say fundamental research in these areas triggered their interest in the subject. And Sir Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society may have won the Nobel Prize for his discoveries in the life sciences but he has a telescope at his flat in the Royal Society. There are many good reasons for investing in satellites and space missions from the sheer fascination of discovery to the technological and business opportunities but it is also a great way to excite young people in science. In America they still talk about the Apollo effect bringing many people into scientific careers. I hope we enjoy something similar with the first British mission to the International Space Station. I will soon be launching the competition to select a name for that mission by Tim Peake. When Tim takes off in November 2015, he will be the first British astronaut in space more than 20 years and the first British ESA astronaut ever selected for a mission to the space station. This has huge potential for us. I hope that we can find a name for his flight that captures that spirit of endeavour that can ignite a true sense of curiosity in young people.

And today I can announce that we are investing in a truly awe-inspiring new space mission – supporting the next generation of planet hunters. Space-based observatories have shown that rocky planets very much like Earth are almost certainly common in the Galaxy. PLATO is a mission to find and understand these planets – and in particular to assess their potential for hosting extra terrestrial life. I can announce today that we are earmarking £25 million to support this ambitious space mission, selected in February by the European Space Agency as its next Medium-Class Mission (M3). If - or rather when - mankind travels beyond our solar system to new, habitable worlds, the first planet visited may well have been discovered by this mission.

PLATO will break new ground with its ambitious new technology as well as its science. It means designing a spacecraft that is ultra stable and agile. UK companies such as Airbus have a real opportunity to play a major role here, generating economic growth and securing several hundred jobs nationally. And the mission will use a 2.5 billion pixel camera with extremely wide field optics, that looks more like the compound eye of a fly than a conventional telescope. Chelmsford-based E2v Technologies are well-placed to win the multi-million pound contract from ESA to build the Charge-Coupled Device detectors for this camera - like the sensors in your 16Mp digital camera but more than 150 times more powerful. And the UK is brilliantly placed to deal with the challenges of the phenomenal amounts of data PLATO will produce. Top British scientists at Cambridge are already preparing for a similar data deluge from GAIA, the space observatory that will build a 3D map of our galaxy by observing a billion stars.

PLATO offers huge potential. The potential for a cutting edge mission to find a rocky planet with signs of life, using UK sensors, read by UK electronics, using UK software, on a mission led by a UK scientist, Don Pollacco, based at the University of Warwick. This is a new era for British space. And I feel sure that it will awaken the excitement of science across our great nation.

Indeed 1 of the secrets of our success is what we now call citizen science, which delivers large volumes of research quality scientific data, fast. Thousands of ordinary volunteers have analysed online images of galaxies with Galaxy Zoo, a project which is supposed to have begun in a pub in Oxford, helping professional astronomers make discoveries like the first planet with 4 stars. The first project beat all expectations, with more than 150 million online classifications by more than 150,000 people in the first year, and they are now on project number 5. Citizen scientists don’t just do astronomy; they have been observing the natural world for centuries. When the deadly chalara dieback disease was confirmed in ash trees growing naturally in the UK for the first time last year, the public stepped up to help scientists, using specially designed apps for spotting, reporting and tracking diseased trees. Meanwhile scientists at NERC’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology are involving 3,000 schools across the country in monitoring bumblebees to see if they are indeed declining and why. This project is especially exciting as young people can develop and test their own hypotheses. And at the other end of the size scale, ordinary people can now play a pivotal role in spotting stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises for the Natural History Museum. More than 14,000 animals have been reported by members of the public, giving us a unique insight into the threats they face.

We have a long tradition in Britain of passionate amateurs helping to drive our knowledge of the world around us. In the 18th century Joseph Priestley conducted his own experiments with electricity and chemistry. He isolated various gases including oxygen and produced the first drinkable glass of soda water. However the oxygen he separated was identified by Lavoisier who got the credit and the creation of soda water was successfully commercialised by a Swiss entrepreneur called Schweppe. We expect things to be different today.

Mary Anning’s skilful fossil collecting around her home of Lyme Regis led to massive steps forward in paleontology – though predictably as a woman in the 18th Century she was not rewarded with the esteem she deserved at the time. In fact, even Charles Darwin didn’t have any formal science training. But what is different now is that we have the technology to take citizen science to a wholly different level. And that is exactly what we aim to do.

Much of the resurgence of citizen science has been driven by academic and scientific institutions. We hope more research teams will consider whether they can outsource some of their data gathering to the public. Some fantastic guides have been produced to help researchers explore this option, including 1 by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Natural History Museum. And today I can announce that my Department will be running a new Science and Society Challenge grant scheme. We would be delighted to see some exciting new citizen science projects amongst the applicants.

This is all part of the new UK Charter for Science and Society which I am launching today. This aims to enhance debate on science policy, to increase transparency in the sector and to empower young people of all backgrounds to become engineers and pioneering scientists of the future. Great science depends on great scientists. But we do need to get the environment right for them to flourish. That means public funding but also public money spent in the best way. Here the Haldane Principle is crucial. It means public funding is allocated on the principle of excellence determined by academic peer review not by ministers.

Another strength of our system if that we fund research in an unusual way. Our research is supported by 2 distinct funding streams. First, the Higher Education Funding Council’s Research Excellence Framework (the REF) awards base funding to support research. This rewards excellence with no strings attached, based on past performance. And then we have Research Council grants which are based on future promise. It does not matter what your age is or how distinguished you are – it is the quality of the next project which matters. Today Research Councils UK is releasing a new breakdown of winners of research council grants. This shows very little difference in the success rates of researchers in their 30s or 40s and more established scientists in their 50s or 60s when applying for standard grants. And today my Department is publishing new reports which demonstrate some of the positive impacts that this research council investment has.

Of all the leading science nations we are the ones who clearly get out the most for what we put in. And to their credit the Chancellor and the Treasury can see this. We have sustained our science budget through tough times with a cash protected ring fence of £4.6 billion per annum. That has been a solid reliable framework for current spending on science - promised in summer 2010 and consistently delivered through to 2015 to 2016. Protecting the science budget in this way was a clear strategic decision and it was right. But we did inherit from the previous government plans for large cuts to capital spending overall. We were not able to reverse those plans straight away. However in successive Budgets and Autumn Statements the Chancellor has provided the science community with further capital funding as well. As a result science capital funding has steadily grown and will rise to £1.1b in 2014 to 2105. And last summer he committed us to maintaining this level of capital spending in real terms year after year until 2020. George Osborne has provided a historic opportunity to have a long-term plan for capital investment in science. Next month we will be publishing a consultation document with ideas on how best we should spend this unprecedented amount. We recognise that it is the science community itself which must shape these plans so we will outline candidates and invite views on their relative merits and new ideas too.

This is a historic opportunity to help shape the global science infrastructure of the next half century. Many of the key scientific projects are just too big for 1 country. If we have the funding to contribute we can help shape them and play a leading role in them. Today I want to set out our plans for participating in important global science projects.

After the International Space Station and the Large Hadron Collider the world’s next great science project is the Square Kilometre Array. Today I want to set out our plans for that next challenge. And it is right to do so here at Jodrell Bank the home of radio astronomy. The Large Hadron Collider is about smashing together protons to create the same environment as in the universe a moment after the big bang. This new project is to help us understand what happened after the big bang as hydrogen atoms formed and then came together to create the first stars. We want to see the first light. And we can do so because hydrogen atoms emit radio waves. We know the distinctive radio signals they emit at about 1420 megahertz. But that is not how the signal from the first hydrogen atoms seems when it reaches us. Those earliest hydrogen atoms were created at the time of the origins of the universe when it was much smaller; since then it has been expanding. This has had the effect of spreading out the radio waves they sent then, the cosmological redshift. It is similar to the shift in the sound of a race-car as it drives past us and its sound waves spread out before they reach us - the Doppler Effect. Those earliest radio signals have taken 13 billion years to reach us and in that time space has expanded so they have expanded with it. In fact as we know the age of the universe we can say that those radio waves will now be at a lower frequency of about 100 megahertz. This is the frequency at which we can receive the radio waves from the origins of the universe. And you will recognise 100 megahertz. The origins of the universe are to be found somewhere between Radio 4 and Classic FM. That’s where the radio signal is. FM is a rather busy frequency so it is hard to find these ancient radio waves when you have got everything from John Humphreys to Rihanna and Rachmaninov jostling alongside them. So you need to go to places where there is radio silence and our human radio waves don’t reach. That means the remote and sparsely inhabited lands of South Africa and Australia. Scientists in those countries co-operating with others have been developing these extremely sensitive radio telescopes. Now we are going to build 2,000 dishes and link them up. Put together their surface area will add up to a square kilometre, hence the Square Kilometre Array. And the sensitivity of this system will be extraordinary. It could detect and locate a mobile phone signal anywhere within the solar system.. It could detect airport radars on planets, if they existed, within 50 light years or 470 trillion kilometres. Hitherto radio astronomy has focussed on particular radio signals at particular parts of the heavens. In contrast the SKA will be able to look at the whole sky across these lower and middle frequencies. That will enable us to look at the large scale structure of the entire universe, and hopefully understand something about the mysterious phenomena of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, which seem to be responsible for its origin and evolution and without which we would not exist.

That ambition means collecting a huge amount of data. In fact the data flow from the SKA will be 20 times bigger than what flows across the entire internet today. We need capacity to handle this. We need even more than that to bring it together and turn it into a map - a new 3D map of the heavens based on where the hydrogen atoms are sending us signals from. In the UK we have the opportunity to play a leading in role in analysing these vast quantities of data. We will need computing capacity 1,000 times greater than currently available. I want the UK to lead that computing challenge. And today I can announce that subject to international negotiations we are committing around £100 million of investment in that project together with contributions from South Africa and Australia. We hope it will be a basis for us to continue to host the HQ and lead in the development of the software and IT systems.

The pursuit of scientific curiosity like this is worthwhile in its own right. But a scientific challenge on this scale will also drive will also drive huge technological advances. The techniques developed to move such large volumes of data from place to place will improve our ability to stream HD video and other data over the internet. The designs of the antenna systems could improve the way we design our mobile communication systems in the future.

We will need software to handle and make sense of bigger data sets than ever. That need to find patterns in big data is why astronomy has already led to the creation of software that is then applied for other purposes from analysing data in customer loyalty cards through to the precise timing of financial transactions. Programmes developed by astronomers to spot signals from remote stars have been used in neuroscience to trace cells in the brain. The data challenge will transform the speed of our computers and communications. I believe that with this investment we can give Britain a leading role in tackling these challenges. These are exactly the sort of high tech investments we need for a prosperous and secure future. And here near Manchester is the right place to do that. It will link up to the massive investments in high performance computing which we are making at Daresbury nearby. At Daresbury we have already committed £11 million for collaborative work on the Square Kilometre Array software, as well as £37.5 million for advanced software development and £19 million to ensure that our computing remains as energy efficient as possible. Five years ago there was speculation that Jodrell Bank would close. That would have been a tragedy. Now I believe it can be at the centre of the next generation of radio astronomy.

Today, alongside our new BIS Innovation Report, my Department is publishing 4 independent research reports showing the impact of innovation on our economy. One of these looks at Innovation from Big Science. This shows that big science facilities mean extraordinary training opportunities for researchers, and a unique chance for firms to expand their research services. And the more challenging the physical and technical specifications of a big science project are, the more likely it is to have a big impact. The groundbreaking SKA most definitely fits that bill.

But that is not all. There is another international science project which I can announce today we are joining. It is directly relevant to some of the big challenges we face in everyday life. We need better batteries for electric cars. We need chemical processes to run with less energy and less waste. We need solar cells that capture the sun’s energy more efficiently. We need lighter, stronger materials. To do all this we need to be able to understand how materials behave and interact at an atomic level. The UK has world-leading capabilities in this area with 2 key facilities at Harwell. The Diamond Light Source uses x-rays, essentially beams of very high energy light, to look into samples. ISIS, the world’s leading neutron source uses neutrons, parts of the heavy core of atoms, which allow us to penetrate molecules much more deeply. These 2 kinds of probes ‘see’ different aspects of atomic structure and together form an essential toolkit for the researcher. These can be researchers from Rolls Royce trying to peer deep into the molecular structure of an advanced material for the blades of an aero-engine. They could be researchers from GSK trying to understand a new molecule that has the potential to be a major drug discovery. They need access to world class facilities to remain world class companies.

Today I am delighted to announce that subject to the completion of international negotiations the UK will contribute around 10% of the funding to the next generation facility of this type – the European Spallation Source, which will start construction in Sweden this Summer. The contribution to ESS could be around £165 million up to 2020 to 2021. If you’re wondering, as I did, what ‘spallation’ means, it is simply the technical term for the process through which the beam of neutrons is produced, which involves colliding a powerful particle accelerator beam on to a rather complex metal target. The result is that the neutron beams of the ESS will be around 30 times brighter than current sources. This is a big difference. It is like taking a photo of something with flash lighting rather than under the glow of a candle.

This has huge implications for everyday life. This sort of cutting edge neutron science will lead to the development of new and better computer chips, cosmetics, detergents, textiles, paints, fuels, drugs, batteries and plastics. And industrial drivers such as fuel cells, superconductors, innovative structural engineering, climate, transportation and food technologies, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and clean energy, are all dependent on advances in the capacity and capability of the science of neutron imaging.

The ESS is 1 of the highest priorities for new European research facilities. Our membership will give UK researchers access to powerful and unique new neutron probes that will complement ISIS. Indeed, as part of this agreement the Swedish government has agreed to contribute to the ongoing operational costs of ISIS to provide access for ESS researchers.

So today I have been able to announce around £285 million of investment in 3 world class science projects. Together with the major investment the Chancellor announced in Quantum Technology Centres in the Autumn Statement this means a total new investment of over half a billion pounds. British scientists will be able to play a leading role in PLATO, a new planet-hunting satellite. We will be making a major investment in the Square Kilometre array, guaranteeing a future for Jodrell Bank for the next generation. And we will be key partners in Europe’s project for a new Spallation Source. In a way the Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s most powerful telescope, and the European Spallation Source its most powerful microscope. This is evidence that we are absolutely serious in ambition for Britain quite simply to be the best place in world to do science.