UK policy on science and innovation: in need of new priorities?

Presentation by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, on the NESTA 'Crucible' course on 17 July, 2004



UK science policy landscape

  • Office of Science and Technology (OST)
    • part of Dept Trade & Industry
    • responsible for guiding science policy
  • Gov Depts
    • Science & innovation strategies
    • advisory committees
  • Business
    • powerful lobby: esp military; pharmaceutical
  • Charities
    • powerful lobby: esp health

UK R&D funding

  • Public funding - £7.8 billion (2004-05)
    • Science & Eng Base (SEB)
    • Civil Gov Depts
    • Ministry of Defence (MoD)
  • Private Funding
    • Business - £12.7 bn (2001)
    • Charities (mainly health) - £0.8 bn (2000)
  • Overseas - ~£3 bn (2000)
    • European Commission/ Other Gov & Business

Ref: OST website:


Public R&D spending

See Figures 1 & 2 in appendix. To note:

  • Military (MoD) funding very large - fell from end of Cold War but “War on Terror” has arrested that fall
  • SEB large rises over last couple of years - Gov policy (see later)
  • Drop in Civil Gov Dept funding under Conservative Gov has been reversed by Labour
  • Ref: OST website: & OST (2003)

Business R&D funding

  • See Figures 3 & 4 in appendix. To note:
    • Total funding is growing: mainly civil, but recent upturn in military
    • Pharmaceuticals very large
    • Military (esp aerospace, electronics) large
    • Environment, energy, transport (esp public surface) small

10y science & innovation framework

  • Aims
    • Keep UK science ‘world class’
    • Meet needs of public/ private funders
    • Large expansion of university-business collaboration
    • More commercialisation of leading edge technologies
    • Stronger science and technology skills base
    • Public confidence in science and technology
    • In financial terms, the main aim is to increase R&D investment as a proportion of GDP from 1.9% to 2.5% by 2014 (breakdown: Gov R&D from 0.6% to 0.8%; Business R&D from 1.3% to 1.7%) to close the gap with international competitors (especially USA and Japan) and maintain economic growth. First step is increase in SEB from £4 bn to £5 bn over next 3 years.

Reference: HM Treasury et al (2004)


Concerns about 10y framework

  1. Focus on economic aims at the expense of social and environmental concerns

  2. Focus on expanding business-university partnerships compromising independence in science
  3. Dominant role of the military in funding UK science and technology to continue

1. Social and environmental concerns

  • 1.7 billion people in ‘consumer class’ - consumption is growing fast with economic growth leading to massive degradation of environment (Worldwatch Institute, 2004: p4)
  • Current UK consumption is between 2 and 8 times the sustainable level (Mclaren et al, 1998: p240)
  • 2.8 billion people live in poverty (less than $2 a day) (Worldwatch Institute, 2004: p6)
  • Hence, the main thrust of the 10y science and innovation should be on the contribution to tackling these problems - at present, funding/ policies do not reflect scale of the problems
  • What to do?
  • ‘Sustainable development’ should be made cornerstone of science and innovation policy
  • Focus public R&D on areas which help tackle environmental/ social problems (significant progress, eg, climate science, some health)
  • Create major incentives for private R&D to help (see below) - needs much more work

2. Problems with commercialisation agenda

  • Bias in research (can be unconscious)
    • Pharmaceutical industry has been most thoroughly researched - eg 1998 study examined 70 research papers on a particular heart drug - found that of those authors supportive of the drugs’ positive benefits, 96% had financial relationships with the drugs’ manufacturers; while only 37% of those who were critical had such relationships (Stelfox et al, 1998). Such findings are typical.
    • 'Gagging clauses' are also used - eg in the 1990s a team led by Nancy Olivieri of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto concluded that a drug, deferiprone, was inadequate for its prescribed use. Due to a clause in her contract with the drug’s manufacturer, Apotex, Olivieri had to wait three years before publishing these conclusions (Olivieri et al, 1998; van Kolfschooten, 2002)
    • US fossil fuel industry regularly funds researchers known to be sceptical of climate change
  • Focus on cutting-edge technologies which can provide high income (eg patents) - more uncertainty, more chance to go wrong; can also be more energy/ material intensive
    • Eg BBSRC currently funds 26 projects on GM crops, only 1 on organic production (Monbiot, 2003)
    • About 85% of R&D in industrialised world is 'high-tech' or 'medium high-tech' (HM Treasury et al, 2004: p60).
    • Possibility of ‘technology lock-in’ whereby certain technologies become widespread despite others offering real advantages.
  • Focus on R&D which increases commercial returns (eg new products, expanded production) rather than that which assesses environmental/ social/ health issues
    • Eg research carried out in UK universities relevant to the oil and gas extraction sector - just 2% is on assessing environmental impacts, while most of rest is focussed on improving efficiency of oil and gas discovery and extraction (Muttitt, 2003)
  • Public confidence about science
  • Public concern about negative effects of science is high
    • 67% believe science and technology are making our better (HM Treasury et al, 2004: p103) - but this is historically low
  • Concern is highest amongst scientifically-literate sections of public
  • The concern is that, based on previous experience, business and Government involved in uncertain new technologies (eg GM) will not have society's best interests at heart, or will take responsibility should anything go wrong (Marris et al, 2002).
  • Industrial Influence
  • Industry influence on science and innovation policy is powerful
    • Sit on DTI, MoD and other Government advisory committees
    • Sit on Research Council steering committees
    • Fund 'independent' science lobby groups, eg Scientific Alliance, Science Media Centre, Institute of Ideas
    • Some fund professional scientific organisations, eg Royal Society
  • Commercialisation of public R&D
  • Gov drive for 'Knowledge transfer and exploitation' from universities & public research labs.
    • Funding (£10's millions per yr) includes Higher Education Innovation Fund, the Science Enterprise Challenge, the University Challenge, the Public Sector Research Exploitation Fund.
  • Industry liaison staff up 45%; research income from business up 36%; new patent applications up 27%; income from intellectual properly up 43% (1999-2002 from HM Treasury et al, 2004: p69-70)
  • Implication: Gov policy is running counter to public's legitimate concerns
  • What to do?
  • All Gov innovation grant schemes, tax credits etc should have an environmental/ social/ health focus (including strong emphasis on precautionary principle)
  • Greater proportion of funding to low (appropriate) technology
  • Funding for most multidisciplinary research centres (esp. environmental/ social) should be ‘ring-fenced’, ie no business
  • ‘Community Research Council’ for exclusive use by public-interest group (community, environmental etc)

3. UK military and science

  • UK 2nd highest funder of military research and development (after USA) (Smith, 2003)
  • Ministry of Defence has largest fraction of public R&D budget (about 30% of total)
  • 40% of Government R&D staff work for MoD (12,000 staff)
  • Nuclear weapons - active R&D programme - next generation?
  • Other ref: OST website:
  • Military & universities
  • MoD funds R&D in universities, both directly (through Joint Grants Scheme) and through contractors (Defence Science & Technology Labs and QinetiQ consultancy) - many details are unavailable.
    • The MoD does not hold centrally information about the number of sub-contracts placed by our contractors with either academia or industry.”
  • New and expanding collaborations between universities, Government bodies (including MoD, DTI and/or Research Councils) and defence corporations
    • Defence Technology Centres (DTCs). Three Centres have been set up since 2000. Each covers a broad area of research with possible civil applications. The first three areas covered are data handling, human factors integration and electromagnetic remote sensing. MoD funding up to £5 million a year for 5 years.
    • Towers of Excellence (ToEs). More specialised than DTCs, and driven more by an industry agenda (aim: to produce 'world-beating projects'), eg guided missile systems, electro-optic sensors.
    • Defence and Aerospace Research Partnerships (DARPS). Specialised projects similar to ToEs arising from Government Foresight programme, eg rotorcraft aerodynamics, advanced metallic airframes.
  • Also industry-university collaborations with military component
    • Rolls Royce University Technology Centres (UTCs)
    • Boeing Sheffield Centre
  • Ref: Langley (forthcoming)

  • Concerns with military
  • Narrow security agenda based on use of military force/ technology
    • MoD spends £12 billion per yr on equipment procurement. Military promotes arms exports which can and do inflame international tensions, including regimes which abuse human rights (CAAT, 2004). Only 6% of MoD budget spent on conflict prevention (Conscience, 2004).
  • Lack of public scrutiny
    • Official Secrets Act undermines openness in science. Culture of secrecy is a problem even when national security is not an issue.
  • Not good value for money
    • Most heavily subsidised industry apart from agriculture - each arms export job subsidised by approx. £8,500 (CAAT, 2002; ORG & Saferworld, 2001).
    • The military argues that there are ‘spin-off’ technologies from the science and engineering they fund which are good for the economy/ society. The evidence for this is limited. Military technology often requires substantial investment to convert it for civil use, which industry can be reluctant to spend if military markets are more lucrative, eg Ferranti, Vickers (Mort & Spinardi, 2004). Even if the major investment is forthcoming, the close connection with military applications means weapons proliferation is a constant headache (eg nuclear power, chemical pesticides). Attempts such as the UK’s Dual-Use Technology Centres have been plagued by conflicting priorities. It would be more efficient to invest directly in civil science and technology.
  • Need a broader interpretation of concept of 'security'.
    • The roots of conflict lie in problems such as poverty, environmental damage, and ethnic differences. Devoting many more resources to addressing problems in these areas would provide greater security overall. One hopeful sign is the UK Government's setting up of a Global Conflict Prevention Pool which funds projects aimed at stopping conflicts by non-military means.
  • Large shift in funding to civil areas, ie sustainable development


  • UK science and innovation needs:
    • Much greater focus on environmental/ social priorities
    • Measures to ensure reliable, 'independent' science
    • Large shift of military R&D to civil


(Web links correct as of July 2004)

CAAT (2002) Arms trade economics - subsidies factsheet. Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

CAAT (2004) Fanning the flames: how UK arms sales fuel conflict. Campaign Against the Arms Trade, London.

Conscience (2004) Answer to a Parliamentary question tabled by Adam Price MP: reported in Conscience Update, 123, Winter.

HM Treasury, DTI, DfES (2004) Science and innovation framework 2004-2014.

Langley (forthcoming) The military influence on science, engineering and technology. Scientists for Global Responsibility. /

Marris, C., Wynne, B., Simmons P., and Weldon, S. 2002. Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe, Final Report of the PABE research project, Commission of European Communities.

Mclaren D., Bullock S., Yousuf N. (1998) Tomorrow's World: Britain's share in a sustainable world. Friends of the Earth/ Earthscan.

Monbiot (2003) The enemies of science. The Guardian. 6th October. Quoting Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council website (Current Grants awarded by Agri-Food Committee)

Mort M and Spinardi G (2004) Defence and the decline of UK mechanical engineering: the case of Vickers in Barrow. Business History, no 46, p1-22.

Muttitt G. (2003) Degrees of Capture: Universities, the oil industry and climate change. Corporate Watch.

Olivieri N. F., Brittenham G. M., McLaren C. E., Templeton D. M., Cameron R. G., McClelland R. A., Burt A. D., and Fleming K. A. (1998). Long-term safety and effectiveness of iron-chelation therapy with deferiprone for thalassemia major. New England Journal of Medicine, no 339, p417-23.

ORG & Saferworld (2001) The Subsidy Trap. Oxford Research Group and Saferworld.

OST (2003) 'The Forward Look 2003: Government-funded science, engineering and technology'. Office of Science and Technology, London.

Smith, D. (2003) The Atlas of War and Peace. Earthscan.

Stelfox H. T., Chua G., O'Rourke K., Detsky A. S. (1998). Conflict of interest in the debate over calcium-channel antagonists. New England Journal of Medicine, no 338 p101-6.

van Kolfschooten F. (2002). Conflicts of interest: can you believe what you read? Nature, no 416, p360-3.

Worldwatch Institute (2004) State of the World 2004: Progress towards a sustainable society. Worldwatch Institute/ Earthscan.


Graphs - statistics from OST:

Figure 1 - UK public R&D spending 1987-2005

Figure 1 - UK public R&D spending 1987-2005

Figure 2 - UK public R&D spending by area (2000-01)

Figure 2 - UK public R&D spending by area (2000-01)

Figure 3 - UK business R&D spending (1989-2001)

Figure 3 - UK business R&D spending (1989-2001)

Figure 4 - UK business R&D spending by product group (2000-01)

Figure 4: UK business R&D spending by product group (2000-01)