Science funding: ‘select the winners?


An ambitious Conservative minister has established a strategy to convert the united kingdom scientific knowledge into new products and services that generate employment and wealth for the economy.

This was in 1983. The minister was Kenneth Clarke, who launched the £350 million Alvey programme. It was designed to propel Britain to the forefront of advanced computing.

But the policy of government subsidies for research and development of the favored companies known as “pick winners” – do not be conformed to Margaret Thatcher’s policy of introducing free market principles to the economy. Five years after its creation, the government pulled the plug on the Alvey program.

Thirty-five years, another Mr. Clark, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, announced £140 million to support collaboration between industry and academia in the so-called life sciences sector, which develops new and innovative medical treatments.

The money was announced earlier this year -but the details were revealed Wednesday, with great fanfare.

“The life sciences industry is the most successful and the most important, we know,” Mr. Clark told reporters.

“The demand for this is going to increase in the coming years, so that what we are doing is to support a collaboration to achieve advances for patients and also creating jobs.”

BBC /Pounceford

So, why another Conservative government for the reactivation of a policy of subsidies for industrial research when one previous scrap in the 1980s?

This is because some high-tech companies and leading scientists have persuaded the Treasury and Downing Street that the policy was not bad and should be given another go now.

As a result, the prime minister and the chancellor announced an industrial strategy at the end of last year.

It is to be driven by the uk strengths in research, and gave an extra £4.7 million pounds to spend on science during the next four years.

The life sciences strategy it is the first announcement of many that will aim to harness Britain’s scientific strengths that benefit the economy.


And while the word “intervention” does not fit easily with some Conservative politicians, the policy is sold as part of the solution in the government of the Brexit narrative.

The previously Remain-the support to Jeremy Hunt, said: “When we leave the EU, we’re going to have a lot of money that we currently have no control over.

“What we are saying today is the science of the life of the industry [have] very big opportunity.

“The government supports businesses who want Britain to be right at the top of the stack to make those innovations.”

Until recently, the Treasury has been suspicious of the way in which the nine scientific funding agencies spend public money.

The process involves experts in the field to decide the mappings based purely on scientific excellence.

But the lack of coordination or strategic oversight made by officials and ministers nervous of giving funding agencies of any serious money.

That began to change in 2015, when the Nobel Prize winner and director of the Crick Institute, Professor Sir Paul Nurse, persuaded the then Chancellor, George Osborne, that an organism which must be configured both to coordinate the science to the donors and to consider how the research they were supporting, equipped with economic opportunities.

The Treasure loved the idea. It was a marked departure from the autonomy of the funding bodies had enjoyed in the past.

But Sir Paul said the proper oversight and coordination was the only way that the uk could maintain its excellence in research.

REUTERS/Richard Stonehouse/pool

Government accepted Sir Paul’s idea and set up the umbrella body, called the United Kingdom of Research and Innovation (UKRI).

With it came the extra £4.7 million for the science, with the possibility of more, maybe even much more, if the system provides benefits to the economy.

“It is an enormous sum that we have not seen for decades that has been added to the science budget. So, I think that we have everything to play”, says Sir Paul.

There is concern despite the fact that the ministers interfere, by directing funding away from the best of the research and towards those areas that are socially, economically and politically important to them.

Sir Paul believes that such concerns to be “alarmist”.

“For science to play its role in the promotion of benefit for the society is very important to invest in [pure] research,” he says, “but also to think about how fundamental discoveries can be translated into something useful for the objectives that will bring progress for the society.”

Thirty-five years since the launch of the Alvey program, we have another Conservative government that is not afraid of selecting the winners?

The author of the new life sciences strategy document, Professor Sir John Bell, of the University of Oxford, says that he hopes so.

“If you look around the world, it is important to think about why you’re doing an industrial strategy, and I think that is to try to identify the areas where you are likely to see very substantial economic expansion,” he says.

“All the world thinks of US is completely capitalist free market enterprise, but the truth is that inject billions of pounds subsidising its life sciences industry in a variety of different ways.”

Follow Pallab on Twitter.