Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 53

Supplementary submission from the Geological Society of London


"Has the time come for the UK—as part of a clear economic strategy—to make choices about the balance of investment in science and innovation to favour those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage?"

  The Geological Society of London is pleased to have the opportunity to submit a follow-up response to this enquiry.

We respond in particular to question 2.

"Whether such a policy is desirable or necessary"

We believe that:

    —  Investment in science should be long term, at a planned sustained level rather than intermittent or subject to wide fluctuation.

    —  School science education, further and higher education and applied, policy-driven and fundamental/basic research are all essential elements of the national innovation system. All these areas require effective funding, and one cannot be funded at the expense of another, as a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for innovation and wealth creation.

    —  It is not always possible, nor desirable, to consider "science" as composed of discrete individual research areas without overlap.

  In light of the above points, it is not viable to seek to boost the economy by investing in specific areas of science only. Nor is it possible to look at UK science investment in isolation, but as part of a mixture of public and private investment across the entire Budget. If science is genuinely to be put at the heart of Government and Government policy, it should not be necessary to make a choice of one area of science over another, but to have a clear economic strategy, of which science is one key component.

  If anything, we would argue that what is needed is not investment in favour of those areas in which the UK has clear competitive advantage, but the opposite—for different areas of science to view one another as potential collaborators rather than competitors. It is becoming evident that many of the most challenging problems facing the global community in this century cannot, because of complexity and magnitude, be solved by any one single research discipline but only by a suite of them extending, in many cases, across the realms of natural, social and economic-political sciences. There are already signs that, in some areas, the traditional late 19th and 20th century barriers between scientific disciplines are being breached as forcing by societal relevance makes collaboration between disciplines essential and increasingly illuminating.

  To take one example, in 2010 the Geological Society is organising a two-day symposium that will bring together geologists and ecologists to see how past global warming events and ecology can inform present-day ecologists concerned about current and forthcoming climate change. There are many past examples of the benefits of such collaboration. British physicists at CERN came up with the World Wide Web, and British mathematicians at the National Physical Laboratory came up with package switching that enables the internet to work with large files such as video, and enables large mobile phone traffic. It is unlikely that such outcomes could have been predicted, and such advantageous collaborations would be lost by employing such a strategy.

  An Investment policy on the part of responsible governments that facilitates continued growth of this trend in solving the `big questions' now faced by the human community, will help bring science and engineering closer to the heart of government as well as yielding manifold benefits from local to global.

April 2009

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