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Setting directions for science

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A SCIENCE and innovation strategy published by the Government last month is by no means the first to consider what kind of research should be conducted in the UK and how it can be turned to economic advantage, nor is it likely to be the last. Nevertheless, the strategy – ‘Our plan for growth: science and innovation’, which has been produced by the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – is important, as it could set the direction for research and development over the next 10 years and beyond.

The strategy doesn't quite repeat the old chestnut that the UK is good at research but not very good at exploiting it – but the aspirations sound familiar and it comes pretty close. For example, in a foreword, George Osborne, the Chancellor, Vince Cable, the Secretary of State at BIS, and Greg Clark, the minister for universities, science and cities, note that ‘The UK's science base is extraordinary – our cutting edge research base is world leading, our universities are world class, we develop and attract the world's brightest minds and we are second in the world when ranked by Nobel prizes. Science is one of our clear comparative advantages in the global race.’

However, they also point out that there is a need to build on these advantages: ‘The UK's ability to capitalise on its cutting edge science base will be critical to our future prosperity and societal wellbeing. There are big opportunities (such as the burgeoning potential of genomics) but also big challenges (such as around antimicrobial resistance). We must rise to these challenges by supporting innovation and the transformation of our cutting edge science into new products and services. This will create new jobs, innovative businesses and allow the UK to take the lead in new markets.’

The strategy aims to make the UK ‘the best place in the world for science and business’. It sets out the Government's plans for making that happen, while also repeating the now familiar mantra that ‘the Government cannot do this alone’.

The plan is made up of six main elements: deciding priorities, nurturing scientific talent, investing in scientific infrastructure, supporting research, catalysing innovation, and participating in global science and innovation. Underpinning these elements are five key ‘themes’: the importance of achieving excellence; the need to show agility in seizing new opportunities; the need to foster collaboration between disciplines, sectors, institutions, people and countries; the need to recognise the importance of ‘place’, where people and organisations benefit from mutual proximity; and the demand for openness and engagement with the world. For each element, the strategy sets out the UK's current position, along with action already taken by the Government and what it plans to do next.

The strategy covers the whole of British science and does not refer to veterinary research specifically. Nevertheless, like the results of the recent Research Excellence Framework exercise (VR, January 17, 2015, vol 176, p 58), it will define the environment in which veterinary science must progress. Research in the animal health field, for example, could be affected by a planned review of the Research Councils, along with other research across a wide range of disciplines. The review is being undertaken by Nobel prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, director of the new Francis Crick Institute in London and current president of the Royal Society, who will report to ministers later this year.

Discussing the importance of research generally, the strategy refers to the challenges of an increasing global human population that is depleting the world's natural resources, as well as the risks posed by pandemic infections and the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. It refers to current infectious disease challenges including Ebola disease in Africa, tuberculosis in humans and cattle, and ash dieback, and notes that ‘there are many other diseases of humans, animals and plants that are important for our health, wealth and environment.’ It also lists ‘agri-science’ as one of ‘the eight great technologies’, remarking that ‘although genetics is above all associated with human health, advances in agricultural technologies can put the UK at the forefront of the next green revolution.’ This, in itself, is encouraging, but it would have been good to see more specific commitments to investing in these areas being included in the strategy.

The strategy is right to draw attention to the importance of nurturing scientific talent – from primary and secondary education, through higher education and beyond – and rightly points out that ‘Our science and innovation can only be as good as the people it can attract, educate, train and retain.’ It highlights the importance of the postgraduate education system, noting that the skills of postgraduates are needed not only to maintain a world-class research base but also to tackle major business challenges and drive innovation and growth. Discussing knowledge exchange and innovation, it draws attention to the crucial role of business and the efforts being made by the Government to catalyse innovation and bridge the so-called ‘Valley of Death’ between the lab and the marketplace. This is an area where many previous strategies have fallen. It would be difficult to argue with the aims of the strategy. Ultimately, however, its success will be measured not by what it aspires to, but how it is put into practice and what it actually achieves.

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