Oral statement to Parliament

Vince Cable delivers speech on UK science, openness and internationalisation

Vince Cable explains why it's good for growth for scientists to operate in a range of countries.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable

Good evening.

This is the second time I’ve had the opportunity as Secretary of State to talk about science to a distinguished scientific audience. The first time I spoke as a boring economist and argued that resources were finite, which earned me a sharp rebuke from Brian Cox the next day. But I think we reached a reasonable place on financial resources for science, given the budget difficulties facing the Government.

Tonight I have a different proposition: that this country’s ongoing scientific prowess depends to an ever greater extent on openness: our ability to attract creative minds to these shores, the exchange of students, on our readiness to participate in research that’s conducted across borders, and on our commitment to public dialogue and access to data. This might seem obvious but there is always a powerful constituency arguing for closed minds and closed borders.

Before going any further, let me first to thank the Royal Society for arranging this stellar international gathering - along with the Royal Academy of Engineering, Academy of Medical Sciences and the British Academy; and for allowing a defector like me - who switched from natural sciences to economics as an undergraduate - to join you.

I’m also delighted to share this platform with Sir Paul Nurse; I agreed with the themes of his Dimbleby Lecture earlier this year, with its emphasis on science as a critical driver of the economy and its insistence on hard evidence informing decision making. I’m glad that we’ve managed to repatriate him.

He, I’m sure, would be the first to acknowledge that international engagement and the dissemination of knowledge have defined the history of the Royal Society from its earliest days. Its very first secretary at the time of the Restoration, the Bremen-born natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg, reached out to contacts from across the known world. In the late 1670s, Edmond Halley journeyed to Danzig on behalf of the Society to settle a dispute between Robert Hooke and Johannes Hevelius - ruling, as it turned out, in the latter’s favour. In 1719, the Society appointed its first dedicated foreign secretary - a post it established before the British government, and one it has maintained ever since.

Any casual glance at the list of Society’s fellows or winners of the Copley Medal - and there’s considerable overlap - reveals foreign names widely familiar to non-scientists: Alessandro Volta, Louis Pasteur, Ivan Pavlov, Albert Einstein.

This isn’t a cause for celebration on merely sentimental or nostalgic grounds. The Society’s leading position in world science - Britain’s too - has long depended on these intellectual associations. We have also gained enormously - including economically - from the likes of Max Perutz choosing to work here and founding the Laboratory of Molecular Biology. I hope, for example, that our most recent Nobel laureates, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, will create a similar legacy through their investigations into graphene at Manchester.

Benefits of mobility

In fact, we have clear evidence that mobility is healthy for scientists. It’s always been possible, of course, to assert, say, that Dorothy Hodgkin’s extensive travels were an important aspect of her development as a scientist - but we can now go beyond the anecdotal. According to a report by Elsevier - and I mention this with my younger son, a physicist, currently based in Singapore - those of our researchers who spend more than two years working abroad before returning to the UK are the most productive. Think of mathematician Andrew Wiles, physicist Athene Donald and indeed Paul Nurse himself - all leaders in their respective fields, all beneficiaries of sojourns abroad.

Meanwhile, UK researchers affiliated with an overseas institution are, on average, 75 per cent more productive than researchers without such a relationship - and I’m encouraged by the fact that the proportion of our scientists cultivating foreign contacts is far higher than in most other research-intensive nations.

But the most compelling advertisement for openness and collaboration right now is the Large Hadron Collider - the world’s largest ever scientific experiment and, currently, its biggest science story. As we digest the discovery of a boson with clear, Higgs-like characteristics, we should recall some of the reasons for British pride. We invested over £500 million in the Collider through direct funding and by supporting the 15 UK universities involved in its development. More than 600 UK scientists regularly work at CERN. Pupils from almost 250 UK schools visited CERN in 2011, and we’ve seen 2,000 more applicants for physics degrees in 2012/13 compared to the previous year. Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come.

There are parallels here with economic trends. Britain is far more open to inward investment and trade than comparable developed countries, and we benefit as a result.

Lamenting the so-called “brain drain” used to be a national sport. Nowadays, we should be actively encouraging “brain circulation”. It’s good for science - good for growth - when our researchers operate in a range of countries, building networks and identifying potential commercial applications linked to their work. On the flip side, it’s extremely good for the UK that we are an attractive place for transitory researchers - men and women who spend a couple of years here at most before returning home; they are often highly productive during their stay. Just under a third of active researchers in the UK fall in this category. Our performance in technology-related sectors and industries can only gain from such international collaboration and exchange - and we’ve reformed the visa system accordingly.

Immigration policy

I know that the current immigration control system comes in for strong criticism in the academic and business communities. I accept that some of the signals sent from the UK have been damaging to the perception of how we welcome talent from overseas. But, In August 2011, we created a new category under Tier 1 for exceptional scientists, with four of the learned societies - including the Royal Academy of Engineering and our hosts tonight - endorsing applications. Such people need not secure a job offer before coming to the UK. We have also made adjustments to the skilled worker route, Tier 2, that recognises the situation facing scientists - by introducing an exemption on the salary threshold for those taking PhD-level jobs. This will make it easier for scientists and researchers to settle in the UK. We have also responded to concerns that recruitment rules do not reflect the highly specialised nature of research jobs - allowing employers to pick the best candidate for the job, even if there is a suitable resident worker, and allowing greater time to hire academics.

To be world-beating, we need to be world-greeting. At last month’s Cheltenham Festival, I met a group of young scientists from several countries, who were all competing in the Fame Lab International Finals. They’d received a great reception from our science community - and it sent out a powerful message.

There is still work to be done in communicating the new flexibilities on immigration to the outside world - especially Tier 1 - and my department wants to know of any outstanding issues, which it will endeavour to resolve. Nevertheless, we are making progress - simplifying, for instance, the process by which invited academics from overseas can lecture here.

So far as international students are concerned, there is - contrary to widespread belief overseas - no cap on numbers. We welcome legitimate applicants to bona fide institutions and we want our education sector to take advantage of opportunities to grow. From everything I’ve said already, it should be clear that overseas talent is essential for a healthy research base, including via the undergraduate pipeline.

UK Attractiveness

Visa procedures, of course, are just one factor in determining where scientists choose to locate - and we’re in no doubt about the increasing global competition to attract talent. More important is the working environment, which consists of many elements: levels of public investment in research, infrastructure and international programmes; opportunities to secure funding for research and make connections across disciplines; the standard of public debate on scientific issues and the extent to which a society adopts the scientific method.

The UK has a good story to tell, whether on protecting the national budget for science, establishing Catapult centres to advance next-generation technologies or creating bilateral research programmes with India, China and others. It’s heartening that people like Andre Geim have praised our system for awarding responsive mode grants as being competitive but fair. And it’s encouraging that other countries think highly of the UK’s approach to policy development and public engagement - as evidenced by Japan’s interest in the Chief Scientific Adviser model, following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, or the international praise for our public debate on the appropriate regulation of stem cell research.

I hope the reopening of the debate on GM and ongoing arguments around the appropriate mix of energy generation will be similarly objective.

This evening, though, I want to focus briefly on three areas where David Willetts and I are currently seeking to improve the UK’s scientific environment.

Defamation Bill

The first concerns academic freedom. Freedom of speech and rational dialogue on controversial topics like climate change or genetically-modified foods are a must. The Defamation Bill, currently at Committee Stage in the Commons, contains specific measures to defend scientific and academic debate from the threat of unjustified libel proceedings. It will create a new defence of qualified privilege for peer-reviewed material in scientific and academic journals, and makes clear that qualified privilege extends to reports of scientific and academic conferences. It will raise the bar for claims under the test of serious harm, and introduce a single publication rule to prevent repeated claims against one publisher. The Bill also contains provisions to tackle libel tourism - one form of mobility of which we don’t approve - and offer greater protection to secondary publishers, such as booksellers.

As many of you will know, The British Chiropractic Association recently dropped its defamation case against Simon Singh, which lasted almost two years without ever coming to full trial and cost Singh more than £200,000. The Guardian incurred £500,000 in costs while successfully defending its journalist Ben Goldacre, who’d raised concerns about a South African vitamin manufacturer who denounced conventional AIDS treatments as ineffective. It’s important to ensure that free speech is not unjustifiably impeded by actual or threatened libel proceedings, while ensuring that people who have genuinely been defamed can protect their reputation.

Data access

The other two areas have received direct input from the Royal Society. We are in the middle of an information revolution. Where data used to be a by-product of research, it’s now a driver of research. Improving access to data will not only enhance transparency but fuel innovation, and we are just beginning to understand the potential of data mining to accelerate scientific breakthroughs and their translation into practical applications. Which is why the Government has affirmed the principle that publically-funded academic research is a public good produced in the national interest - and that, while intellectual property must be protected and commercial interests considered, it should be available with as few restrictions as possible.

In this way we will more effectively disseminate knowledge, raise the prestige of UK research and encourage technology transfer. The Gateway to Research web portal, covering projects funded by the Research Councils, will launch next year.

I welcome Janet Finch’s report on open access, to which the Government will respond in due course. I can assure this audience that the views of the learned societies will be taken into consideration as government policy evolves - not least the Royal Society’s contribution, “Science as an Open Enterprise”, published last month, which covered the opportunities and challenges of sharing scientific information. We certainly appreciate how different disciplines have different practices around data and IP. It is not our intention to formulate a one-size-fits-all approach.

I made it clear in my response to the Hargreaves Review, however, that outdated IP rules should not stand in the way of free flows of research. The Government will soon be publishing the second part of its response to the recent consultation on copyright, which included the proposal to establish a copyright exception for text and data mining in non-commercial research.

David Willetts, meanwhile, is chairing a new Research Transparency Sector Board, consisting of Government departments, funding agencies, and representatives from academia. One of its first tasks will be to consider how to act on the Royal Society’s recommendations - protecting the integrity of research while ensuring access to related businesses.

STEM diversity

Third, and finally, I asked the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering - at the end of 2011 - to head up a four-year, government-funded programme to tackle the persistent issue of a lack of diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths.

In the same way as it makes intellectual and economic sense to welcome able overseas researchers - regardless of their origins - recruiting our STEM workforce from the widest talent pool domestically is equally necessary. Not to do so means that talent is squandered. The Royal Society has recently commissioned work to explore socio-economic status within the science workforce - for which we presently have only minimal data - while, last month, the Royal Academy of Engineering launched the website of the STEM Disability Committee. I hope that this focused work can help to bring a broader range of people into science careers. Right now, women - for example - make up less than a fifth of all employees in the science sector. There’s no way we can generate the number of scientists and engineers the economy requires without addressing this situation.


Allow me to sum up. There’s a golden thread running through all of my remarks tonight, and that’s the way in which openness must continue to be a quality which sets UK science apart.

However much we make science and engineering attainable careers for every young person in the country, we’ll always have to attract the best overseas talent - among undergraduates, PhD students, postdocs and experienced academics - by offering an environment in which they can fulfil their potential, pursue groundbreaking research or set up a science-based business.

We’ve already invested scarce public money in the research base to preserve its broad disciplinary mix, and introduced reforms to make university finances sustainable. We can make a virtue of previous intellectual achievements and our traditions of transparency and collaboration, but it will only carry us so far. The challenge now is to demonstrate additional reasons why the UK is the place to come to embark upon a career in science or carry out blue-skies research; to start a tech-based company or take it to the next level; to tap into a highly efficient research base that’s steadily expanding its interface with business.

A clear-headed and liberal attitude to immigration, freedom of expression and a willingness to be pioneers in new approaches to data sharing and mining should all be elements in that offer. And it’s an offer well worth making, because in scientific strength lies economic growth, democratic advancement and social wellbeing.

Thank you.

Published 12 July 2012