Speech

Making Britain the best place in the world for science

Science Minister Jo Johnson gives the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) annual lecture.

It’s a pleasure to be speaking to the Campaign for Science and Engineering in this, your thirtieth year. That’s 30 years since Save British Science was formed. Three decades of campaigning on behalf of Britain’s science and engineering community. And 3 decades holding ministers like me to account!

You, like others, told us that science was vital. And we didn’t disagree on that point. We have a Chancellor who lives in lab coats and high vis jackets and the Spending Review was the clearest signal yet that science and innovation sit at the very heart of this government’s economic plan. This evening, I want to start by setting out in a bit more detail what that science settlement means.

A world-leader in science and engineering

First though I want to throw your minds back to December 15 last year. I know where I was. Counting Tim Peake down to blast off at the Science Museum, along with 3,000 schoolchildren waving Union Flags, their young minds fired by the magic of space and the power of science.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen time and again, as I’ve travelled the country, learning about our extraordinary research base.

It’s been a privilege to break ground at brand new facilities, to open new labs, and to meet the Nobel prize winners and the research teams keeping British science on the map.

In Manchester, I held a jar of liquid graphene, a substance which promises to revolutionise materials and how we use them.

In Wales, I saw the 5 millionth Raspberry Pi roll off the production line. These tiny computers, made in a technology park west of Cardiff, are spreading the benefits of the digital revolution to the furthest parts of the globe.

And on board the Royal Research Ship Discovery, I announced the winning bidder for our brand new £200 million polar research ship. Tonne-for-tonne, the UK will soon have the most advanced floating research fleet of any country in the world.

Our global scientific impact far exceeds our size as a nation. With just 3.2% of the world’s R&D spend, the UK accounts for 16% of the most highly-cited research articles.

And we’ve overtaken the US to rank first among comparable research nations for field weighted citations impact.

Last night, over supper in Amsterdam at the Competitveness Council, I asked Bill Gates what his assessment was of the UK science base. We were sitting around a table, along with the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, and the science ministers of a number of other EU countries.

Unfortunately, the Chatham House rules of the dinner prevent me from repeating his answer, but I can tell you this: it made me unbelievably proud of all the work you do.

Our scientists and engineers truly stand tall on the world’s stage. And this government wants the next generation - all the young people across the country who were watching Tim Peake leave Baikonur that day - to be in a position to build on your legacy.

A decade of protection for science

Because of the difficult decisions we have taken elsewhere in government spending, we have been able to prioritise investment in science and research.

The commitments from the Chancellor in the Spending Review could not have been clearer. We are protecting science resource funding in real terms, at its current level of £4.7 billion, for the rest of the Parliament. At the same time, we are investing in new scientific infrastructure on a record scale - delivering on the £6.9 billion science capital commitment in our manifesto.

That means total investment £30.4 billion to 2020, building on the protections for the science budget in the last Parliament. That’s a decade of protection, and a decade of sustained investment by this government. And all this in the context of significant savings in other areas of expenditure, a clear sign of the place of science in our decision-making.

Best place to innovate

A stable funding environment is a start, but it’s not the end of the process. I’m not the first Science Minister to urge closer partnerships between the research base and industry, or to call for greater efforts on collaboration.

Our universities are already extending their work with charities and industry. In 2013 to 2014, they earned nearly £4 billion from working with businesses and others, up 20% on 2010. And in last year’s productivity plan, we set out our ambition to increase this income to £5 billion per year by 2025.

This collaboration is important because innovation is a shared endeavour. As we set out in our manifesto, we want Britain to be the best place in Europe to innovate and we will be setting out the support the government will be providing to help innovative businesses to flourish in a national innovation plan.

Our R&D tax credit now supports 80% of all business investment in R&D. In 2013 to 2014 over 18,000 companies used the schemes, claiming a total of £1.75 billion. This is a 78% increase in the companies claiming tax credits and a 58% increase in funding provided against 2010 to 2011.

Of course, government does not create innovation; it’s the scientists and engineers, the designers and the entrepreneurs who make it happen. But government can be a catalyst. Currently, every £1 of government spending on research leverages an estimated additional £1.36 of private funding. And for every £1 spent by the government on R&D, private sector productivity rises by 20p per year in perpetuity.

Getting the business environment right is key. The fiscal incentives we provide for research is the government’s single biggest source of business R&D support.

But, as a country, we can’t stand still. Our international competitors are continuing to innovate and develop new ways to support firms.

We’re looking carefully at what our partners in France, Finland and the Netherlands are doing, ensuring we have a range of financial instruments to support innovation.

At the Spending Review, we committed to protect the funding we provide through Innovate UK over this Parliament. This will include up to £165 million per year through new innovation finance products. With this funding our innovation offer will now span grants through to new financial instruments. These will support innovation and ensure the taxpayer can share in the success new ventures.

Alongside the finance, we’re providing the essential innovation infrastructure to help bring businesses and the research base closer together. We’re not just protecting the Catapult network, but expanding the programme to support growth in the high-tech sectors where Britain excels.

Earlier this month, the Chancellor announced our first Catapult in Wales. This will focus on the compound semiconductors that will underpin the next-generation of advanced electronics.

This joins 10 other Catapults that span the life sciences, satellite applications, energy, digital industries and high-value manufacturing. The Catapults will receive total public and private investment in excess of £1.6 billion over their first 5 years of operation. This is shared infrastructure that businesses on their own simply could not afford - and yet another example of the way we are supporting collaboration across the research base.

Science budget allocations

While we’re building new infrastructure, we are also ensuring we get the best return on our investments.

Sir Paul Nurse set out his plan to bring together the 7 Research Councils under the banner of Research UK, and as the Chancellor confirmed in the Spending Review the government is now moving forward with these recommendations.

Many of you will want to know that we’re preserving what works well, and building a stronger base for the future.

We have made clear our commitment to retaining the dual support system and the Haldane principle. These are vital characteristics of our research base. They protect curiosity-driven research that has underpinned so many serendipitous discoveries, and they ensure scientists are in the driving seat when it comes to assessing specific projects.

But there is also an opportunity, as set out in the Nurse review:

  • to free up scientific leadership to focus on the research
  • to reduce the duplication between funding bodies
  • to improve support for multi-disciplinary research
  • and to respond much more effectively to major global challenges - such as Ebola .

We fully recognise the importance of retaining strong leadership in individual discipline areas, and that will remain. The idea set out in the Nurse review was “one university, multiple faculties”. We are also clear that any inclusion of Innovate UK as part of Research UK must be done in a way which protects the ring-fence and Innovate UK’s business-facing focus.

But as we protect science and research funding we must also ensure on behalf of the taxpayers that we’re getting best possible return on investment. The Nurse review is part of that, and I’m also grateful to Lord Sterne for agreeing to review the Research Excellence Framework. He will be looking carefully at how funding could be allocated more efficiently; offers greater rewards for excellent research; and reduces the administrative burden on institutions.

In the meantime, we are working with the Research Councils and other delivery partners to agree the detailed allocations of the science budget.

Our intention is to formally allocate budgets to individual funding bodies by mid-February. The whole research community will then have the opportunity to feed in to Research Council and Innovate UK delivery plans towards 2020.

Global challenges

In this round of allocations, we have a unique addition in the form of the Global Challenges Research Fund. That’s £1.5 billion extra for the science budget by 2021 - additional funding that will help us stay at the forefront of global research.

This is a unique opportunity for UK academics to work with partners around the world and at the same time to address some of the biggest challenges of our time - it’s an opportunity for a double win.

The additional funding is possible because of 2 commitments set out by this government: to protect science and to protect overseas development assistance.

This new Official Development Assistance funding will enable us to build on the success of the existing Newton Fund, which since its launch in April 2014 has already galvanised academic partnerships in 15 countries across 4 continents.

I am pleased to confirm the expansion of the Newton Fund to £150 million a year by 2021. This means a total Newton Fund investment of three-quarters of a billion pounds, in addition to the £1.5 billion for the Global Challenges Research Fund.

With this investment, we will ensure Britain remains a scientific powerhouse in the years to come.

STEM capital’

None of this would be possible without a healthy supply of talented young scientists and engineers.

There have been positive signs recently. Apprenticeship starts in engineering and manufacturing technologies shot up by 52% between 2010 and 2014. Last year saw a 30% increase in the number of young people studying computing at A-Level. And this year saw the number of acceptances for STEM undergraduate degrees jump 5% on last year.

But I know from personal experience that a lack of ‘science capital’ in a family can pass through the generations. One of the reasons I didn’t major in science is that I was clearly better at other subjects. But I strongly suspect there was another issue at play: members of my immediate family have scarcely a science O-Level to rub between them. My father’s strong view was that history, which I loved, was basically a subject you could do in the bath, and that the best thing by far and away was to study classics.

Tackling deficiencies in STEM capital is not a job for government alone. I am discussing with Nick Gibb, our brilliant schools minister, how we can best help pupils that lack ‘STEM capital’ and may need extra encouragement.

Bill Bryson, as ever, captured it well. Writing about his dissatisfaction with his own level of scientific knowledge, he remembered the school science books that seemed to “keep all of the good stuff secret”, making the contents “soberly unfathomable.”

We have come a long way in the last decade in mainstreaming science, thanks in no small part to stars such as Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili and the important work of organisations like Science Grrl.

But cracking this is a whole country effort, and there is much more to do.

Science and Discovery Centres around the country play an important role, offering schools and families a hands-on experience that brings science to life. So I’m pleased to announce that we are partnering with the Wellcome Trust to set up a £30 million Inspiring Science Capital Fund to support these centres for the rest of this Parliament. This will be a competitive fund that centres can bid into ensuring these hands-on experiences are accessible to young people to the end of the decade.

This fund complements our wider support for ‘STEM inspiration’ programmes, including the CREST awards, the National Science and Engineering competition and, of course, STEM Ambassadors, a network of 31,000 people from science, engineering and academia.

Indeed, we’re taking this so seriously Britain even has a STEM ambassador currently orbiting the earth!

Best in Europe, best in the world

So we have the investment, the infrastructure and the people.

But to keep our knowledge factories winning Nobel Prizes, and attracting the best minds, we need to recognise that research these days is rarely a solitary undertaking, or even a narrowly national one. It is about partnerships.

The scientists and engineers that I meet, and the innovative start-ups that spin out from their universities, are usually part of a wider international endeavour. Their work often demands intellect, insight and investment no one country could provide.

Around half of all UK research publications involve collaborations with other countries. Papers involving international collaboration have almost twice the citation impact of those produced by a single UK author. And EU countries are among our most crucial partners, representing nearly 50% of all our overseas collaborators .

Indeed, our links with Europe are deep and longstanding. Free movement of people makes it easier for our universities to attract the best talent, and for British students to spread their wings across the continent, as I was able to do as a student at institutions in France and Belgium. Over 125,000 EU students are studying at UK universities, and over 200,000 British students have ventured overseas on the Erasmus exchange programme (UUK). I want many more to have the opportunities to study overseas that I enjoyed.

European research funding is, in many ways, an example of how the EU can get it right. While applying for funds must become simpler, especially for smaller firms, the key thing is that we have successfully argued for research money only to flow to where the best science is done, regardless of geography, regardless of political pressure.

Because of the excellence of our research base, it is no surprise that the UK is one of the most successful players in EU research programmes. The UK received €7 billion under the last framework programme (2007 to 2013). That made us one of the largest beneficiaries of EU research funding. In this funding round, Horizon 2020, we have secured 15.4% of funds, behind only Germany on 16.5%, and with the second largest number of project participations .

Some will make the point that non-EU countries also benefit from EU Research programme - Norway, Turkey and Israel, for example. But there is a fundamental difference. While some non-EU countries are part of the European Research Area, and sit on the European Research Area Committee, they don’t get a seat at the table when the Ministerial Council or the Parliament are setting the rules or deciding the budgets. Even those international bodies, like the European Space Agency, which sit outside of the EU, benefit from close institutional links. Around 20% of ESA funding comes directly from EU space programmes.

Of course, we cannot be starry eyed. There is a real need for reform, and the Prime Minister is fighting hard to fix aspects of our EU membership that cause frustration to many people. We need protections for those outside the Eurozone. More focus on competitiveness, to help create jobs. We need to take Britain out of “ever closer union” with more power for our Parliament, and we need to control immigration – so that “freedom of movement”, as the Prime Minister has said, means freedom to work and study, not claim benefits.

No one doubts Britain could stay a science player outside of the EU – indeed some of our universities have been successful for longer than many of its member states have even existed. But the risks to valuable institutional partnerships, to flows of bright students and to a rich source of science funding mean the Leave campaign has serious questions to answer.

While there is nothing in our EU membership that limits our ability to work with other countries, the onus is now on those who want to leave the EU come what may to explain how they would sustain current levels of investment and collaboration under very different circumstances.

As science becomes more international, we should nurture partnerships, not reject them. In the end, the British people will decide whether we are safer, stronger and better off as part of the EU, but our future security as a knowledge economy hinges on this decision.

Conclusion

This willingness to embrace global collaboration has been a central pillar of Britain’s proud scientific legacy.

And this government has shown its commitment to extending that legacy well into the future.

The Spending Review confirmed a decade of investment in our science and research base.

We have the tools.

We have the people.

We have the ambition.

Together, we will make Britain the best place in the world for science, engineering and innovation.