The Blog

A New Kind of Science Policy - Five Ways for David Cameron's New Government to Support Science

Though faced with an unenviable heap of political dilemmas, especially regarding our country's size, shape and place in the world, David Cameron and his colleagues would do well also to pay attention to one of the most important long-term drivers of social progress: science.

So the anticipated patchwork of political alliances proved a mirage and the UK emerged from the general election with a new government clothed in monochrome Tory blue. Though faced with an unenviable heap of political dilemmas, especially regarding our country's size, shape and place in the world, David Cameron and his colleagues would do well also to pay attention to one of the most important long-term drivers of social progress: science. The UK has seen a broad cross-party consensus - through Labour and coalition governments since 1997 - that public-sector investment in basic research plays a critical role in achieving and maintaining economic growth. The UK is an outstanding global performer in research, delivering its considerable achievements with less money than other leading economies. As a share of national wealth the UK spends less than 1.8% on research and, with the exception of the pharmaceutical sector, is weak in commercial R&D too. In comparison, Germany and the USA spend around 2.8% of GDP. Australia spends a rising 2.4% and even Canada, despite cuts, spends 1.85%.

The various party manifestos were replete with praise for research as a fundamental human endeavour, and with support for this or that particular initiative, notably in mental health. The Conservatives recalled that they had ring-fenced the science budget and offered a "bold and comprehensive offer for Britain's researchers" via capital projects, tax credits and a focus on the eight key technologies (synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agri-science, advanced materials, energy storage, robotics, satellites and big data) that they originally announced in 2013. But they were silent on the most important research trend of our time: the fact that science itself is changing profoundly, driven in particular by rapid developments in computing. How Britain responds to this trend will determine our future as a scientific power - and the social, economic and intellectual benefits that accrue from that status.

It is no longer sufficient for researchers to have a deep knowledge of their field and a proficiency at conducting delicate experiments. Increasingly they also need to be able to be able to amass, manage and interpret vast quantities of data; corral and control huge computing power; and coordinate all of these complex activities with collaborators in a diverse range of countries and disciplines. The world of gentlemen researchers such as Boyle or Hooke has long gone, but increasingly so too has the cottage-industry science practised by Rutherford or Crick. Today we have a new kind of science that requires a new kind of scientist. There are many things that the government, along with funders and research institutions, should do to support this transformation, but here are few that stand out:

1. Recognise diverse contributions: It is essential to acknowledge that peer-reviewed papers in academic journals, so central to the way we have done science for the last 350 years, are not the only kind of contribution that a scientist can make to the collective endeavour. Increasingly they might also accumulate high-quality observational data for others to interpret, or create software algorithms to analyse such information. These contributions deserve to be taken just as seriously, and accrue as much credit, as more traditional forms of research.

2. Provide career opportunities: To ensure long-term success we also need career tracks for researchers who specialise in areas such as data generation and computing. These in turn require appropriately targeted funding opportunities. It should be as natural to describe yourself as an academic data scientist as it is to call yourself a cosmologist or immunologist. That it is not - at least not yet - prevents some researchers from focusing on the activities where they have most to add, and discourages others with these talents from pursuing careers in basic research.

3. Designate special funding: More research money should be earmarked explicitly to support and develop the computing and data infrastructure for science. In particular, the software that researchers use is too often poorly designed and implemented, and continually falls far short of the standards of applications that we all use for more trivial tasks in our everyday lives, from organising our music to online shopping. This acts as a serious inhibitor of scientific productivity and is both unsustainable and unforgivable.

4. Support research innovation: Britain has enviable capabilities in technological innovation as well as in science, and the combination of these could make each of them more potent still. The government should encourage commercial as well as academic innovation in this area by being more explicit about the kinds of products and services its scientists require and giving those same researchers the discretionary funds they need to procure them. (Disclosure: I run a company, Digital Science, that creates such software for researchers.)

5. Think globally: In science as elsewhere, Britain will only serve its national interests by taking a global perspective. In particular, it must play a full role in the increasing number of large-scale international initiatives, from astronomy and particle physics to genomics and neuroscience. Furthermore, those researchers who contribute must get proper recognition even if they play the parts of relatively small 'cogs' in a much larger 'machine'. This is not to say that small-scale science has had its day, but to continue as a scientific power Britain must be a central participant in the global collaborations that increasingly represent the way that research is done in the 21st century.

Increased investment in the UK research base is essential, but to realise its full potential the dispersal of funds must be informed by a strategy that recognises we are entering a new scientific era. The global status of British research has been of immeasurable benefit during a remarkable 400-year period during which science has expanded to touch every aspect of our lives, and to transform our understanding of the universe and our place in it. But past glories do not on their own deliver future success. If we are to produce a Darwin of data-driven science, or a Clerk Maxwell of computer-enabled research, then we must recognise that science is changing, and that science policy must therefore evolve too.

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