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Finding the right formula

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THE UK has been trying to find the right formula for research and development for more than half a century, with the arguments usually being based on the observation that Britain is very good at research but not so good at exploiting it. The latest attempt comes from the Council for Science and Technology (CST). Made up of leading scientists, engineers and technologists, the CST is ‘the UK Prime Minister's top-level advisory body on science and technology issues’, so it cannot be said to be without influence.

In a report published this month called ‘A vision for UK research’,* the CST argues that the UK's leading position in research, currently second only to the USA, is under threat in the face of increasingly severe global competition and that the Government needs to adopt a clear longterm vision for supporting the research base and deriving the benefits. There is, it says, ‘a real sense of urgency’ about this, brought into sharper relief by the global economic crisis and ‘the present age of austerity’, which reinforces the need for expenditure on research to compete successfully with other financial demands facing the Government: ‘The USA, which is the strongest research player in the world, is voicing its own concerns about the deep seismic shifts in the global competitive landscape brought about - in particular, but not exclusively - by the growing research strength of China and India. The UK must equally understand the magnitude of this threat and take action to address it.’

Key recommendations in the report are that the vision adopted should value the research base and focus on people. Investing in people, the CST says, is more important than trying to predict the most promising research topics or areas into the future, because ‘the best people will adapt and seize new opportunities as the world around them changes’. There will be a need to nurture and retain both home-grown and overseas talent, it says, arguing that ‘The UK must be the prime destination, where the best researchers from around the globe dream to come and stay’.

Improving Britain's record in translating the results of research into increased productivity and better economic performance will require identifying, developing and exploiting the best ideas from around the world as well as in the UK, the CST says. In the UK, business as a whole spends just over 1 per cent of GDP on research and development - about half that spent by business in the USA, Japan and Germany. ‘UK business,’ it says, ‘needs to become bolder in its approach and more receptive to the opportunities that research has to offer - making a stronger pull on the outputs of the research base.’ Articulating a clear vision and priorities for the development of the economy over the next 10 years or more should, the CST says, give greater confidence to the private sector to invest in research to support these objectives, and it lists solving major global problems such as climate change and addressing major challenges such as food security among areas on which the strategy should focus.

The CST further suggests that discussion of science and technology should not be trapped in terminology such as ‘pure’ or ‘blue skies’ or ‘applied’ research. Instead, it advocates ‘a looser language, which reflects the complex, reflexive relationship between research (of all types) and impacts, whether social or economic’. It argues that the debate should be recast to emphasise two linked processes: excellence across the research base and harvesting the products of the research base. To help the translation of research into practice, it suggests that more use should be made of research masters degrees to equip people who are not necessarily going to go into research to acquire skills that can be usefully applied elsewhere.

The kinds of ideas expressed in the report will ultimately have an impact on the veterinary field, but it is worth noting that some of them are already being applied. This was demonstrated at a seminar organised by the Wellcome Trust last week to discuss progress under its Clinical Veterinary Research Training initiative. Worth £10.7 million over five years and involving all seven UK veterinary schools, this initiative aims, through a combination of fellowships, to help build veterinary research capacity and encourage veterinarians to consider and develop a career that combines research and clinical practice. The initiative can be seen as an outcome of the 1997 Selborne report on veterinary research and provides an example of how, by identifying a problem and developing a strategy to deal with it, and with collaborative effort and appropriate investment, progress can be made, albeit that it will be some time before its full impact can be assessed. It may be urgent, but strengthening British science cannot be regarded as a short-term venture, and it will always require sufficient investment overall.

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