My PhD is funded by the taxpayer. Whilst I’m of course hugely grateful for this, I often have to wonder if the taxpayer knows what they’re paying for and why. I wanted to know more about how much the public actually spends on science and research, and whether or not they were happy about it. Why should the taxpayer fund this enormous volume of projects? How and when do the public see any real benefit from all of this research?
When the event started I was immediately struck by the respect in the room for Professor Reid, and by his clear and charismatic discourse. Prof Reid has an immensely strong science and business background. During his previous government position as Head of Research Funding Prof Reid oversaw £5 billion a year through multiple science research bodies, and in April of this year took up his position as Professor of Science and Research policy at UCL.
More than anything, he brought home in this talk just how excellent scientific research is in the UK.
Our country spends around £10 billion a year on scientific research, or £3 per person per week. During the recession, our government has maintained our taxpayer’s scientific spending at the same level, whereas many other departments have suffered devastating cuts. This sounds fantastic for science, but Prof Reid made it quite clear that our scientific expenditure is absolutely unremarkable. In reality, UK funding for research falls incredibly short compared to, for example, Finland, Korea or the US.
So where does this unremarkable level of expenditure get us? Prof Reid went on to explain that although the UK has only 0.9% of the world’s population, we also generate 11.6% of the world’s citations and astonishingly, 15.9% of the world’s most highly cited papers. Thus, with a modest budget and population size, the UK is able to generate good proportion of the world’s high quality science. Science in the UK is strong, and far above the world average given our GDP and population size.
Value for money
Essentially, the British scientific performance is delivered through our efficiency; the UK has the highest number of citations per £billion in the G8. This isn’t just because of public funding, but also due to the seemingly ever-expanding external incomes of our universities, which has grown by 40% in the last decade. Our universities are among the best in the world for their collaboration with businesses. Prof Reid explained how public investment often lays the foundations for private investment, which is then able to grow and bring with it money and jobs.
Prof Reid clarified the returns on taxpayer expenditure toward science. He described the highly skilled labour force generated, the public policy and services generated (where would we be without the Research Council’s support of the physical and emotional impact of flooding, or Sir Alec Jeffrey’s development of DNA fingerprinting for augmenting criminal trials?), how science has attracted global R&D investment to the UK and how it has enabled existing and new UK businesses to improve their performance.
After speaking at length about the business side of the benefits of funding science and research, Prof Reid moved on to public opinion. Public opinion of science is of upmost importance: public engagement secures and sustains public research. But is the UK at risk of having a strong research base that drifts away from an intellectually isolated public? What does your average Bob Joe from down the road care about publicly-funded scientific output?
Although many are mesmerized by media outburst such as the success of the Large Hadron Collider or the confirmed identity of Richard III, much of the public remain ill-informed. The confusion surrounding GM crops and fracking are good examples of this, with the public enthusiastically protesting over subjects about which, scientifically, they know very little. Despite this confusion, public interest appears strong, with 78% of the public declaring in a recent poll that even if science and research has no direct benefit, it should still be funded.
Does the tax-funded scientific community have a duty to communicate science to the public? Perhaps it is time for the scientific community to play a greater role in the media to iron-out confusion surrounding processes such as GM as well as to rally enthusiasm for science and research. There are many reasons why the taxpayer should fund our science and research, but it seems much of the public are not aware of where they’re putting their money. Is this fair? Or does the public by-and-large not really care where the money goes, and want us scientists to just ‘get on with it’?
Present and future changes
Although public scientific funding has remained the same over the past decade, the way it is weighted is changing. Research Council and Higher Education funding is growing, yet the Defence and Civil departments funding is shrinking, causing alterations to the direction our science takes. During the discussion, Dr Jack Stilgoe spoke of how this is causing a move from the cool cutting-edge science we want (such as graphene development, with it’s fantastic conductivity, flexibility and strength) to the science that we need (such as medicine, maintaining our bee populations and preventing flooding). The halt in the growth of our science funding is leading to difficult choices in science.
The talk closed with Prof Reid affirming that in order to stand comfortably beside our scientific peer-group that we like to emulate, such as Germany, Finland, the US, Sweden and Korea, the UK should increase our public spending on science and research by a third to a half. Prof Reid mentioned that “All the benefits that come out of science are underpinned by the excellence of research.” With the help of private investment, charities such as Cancer Research UK and ongoing public engagement perhaps his suggested public funding increase could make UK science not only world-class but world-leading.
The inaugural speech of Professor Graeme Reid ‘Why should the taxpayer fund Science & Research’ took place on 12 May 2014 at UCL.