The modern wealth of a nation flows from its intellectual capital. Obama strongly signalled his understanding of this truth in this year's State of the Nation Address, when he called his continued investment in science 'a Sputnik moment'. Given that the 'travelling- companion -with-the-earth' launched nearly five years before Obama was born, the symbolism is even more fascinating. For the US, the satellite represented simultaneously a haunting sense of fear and failure in the middle of the Cold War, and simultaneously provided the jolt that fired the US space programme that arguably brought down the Soviet Union when the Star Wars programme finally seemed to drive a stake through the heart of Soviet military capability.
The roll call of heavy investment in research is led, of course, by China, which is pouring $100bn a year in research and development, and is now not only a world leader in, for example, supercomputing (where it has taken over from the US), but had also become the number two producer of articles in international science magazines, relegating the UK to number three. Brazil benefits from the one percent levy on turnover it extracts from any oil and gas business to which it grants an extraction licence, and which is then funnelled towards universities and research institutes, and other tigerish economies (including Turkey and Indonesia) continue to invest heavily in knowledge for economic success.
The jolts to the UK economy, such as the recent widening of balance of payments deficit, or the stake through the heart of the UK's train-building industry with the awarding of the Thameslink contract to German company Siemens rather than the Canadian-owned, but British-based Bombadier, tell us that we are in TINA (there is no alternative) country when it comes to the UK's own commitment to its knowledge base. There genuinely is no alternative. However, there genuinely are still questions of getting the best out of any investment we make.
The UK spends £26bn a year on R&D, of which £10bn is from the public purse, spread between universities, research councils, and government research establishments in, for example, health and defence. It can never outcompete the US or China pound for pound (or dollar for dollar), so to be successful it will have to outpunch them. Quite simply, the UK has to be the best place for any business to do R&D. It has to have a system of innovation where government, universities and business are closer together, supporting each other and striving for success. Anything that gets in the way of maximising the value of research and development has to get out of the way - including bureaucracy and bean counting. Risk is at the heart of reward. And without risk and the acceptance of failure, the UK will not generate world beating businesses. These are hard lessons to learn for a media obsessed by anything that looks like a public project gone wrong.
To help in this project, the Council for Industry and Higher Education last week launched a major task force of senior business leaders, including Lord Sainsbury and Hermann Hauser, both of whom have long-standing policy success in this area. The task force, co-chaired by David Eyton, Group Head of Research and Technology at BP and Shirley Pearce, Vice Chancellor of Loughborough University, will work to find new ways to deepen the economic impact of research in the UK. This is a Sputnik moment for the UK as well. After all, it did fly over our airspace too.