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Making sense of science spending

Brian Cox: Doubling the science budget ‘a reasonable gamble’

Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox (CC-BY Vincent Connare)

On Tuesday, Professor Brian Cox delivered the Faraday Lecture at the Royal Society in London, after winning the prestigious Faraday Prize for his outstanding contribution to science communication.

The lecture, entitled ‘Making Britain the best place in the world to do science’, was loosely based around a timeline of Cox’s life and his scientific inspirations, weaving together particle physics, quotations from famous scientists, and his aspiration to keep the UK at the forefront of international science.

The timeline itself was a graph of UK science investment as a fraction of GDP, which has been on a downward trajectory since the 1970s. This was just a backdrop, he joked—‘I’m making no political comment at all.’

In fact, it was a hint about the sting in the lecture’s tail: making Britain the best place in the world to do science means making sure that science is well-funded. Cox said ‘We don’t spend a lot, by international measures—by any measure—on research and development and science in our economy. But…we are extremely good in Britain with what we do with that money.’ It’s true: with just 3% of global research funding, the UK is responsible for nearly 8% of scientific papers and over 14% of the most highly-cited articles.

He also highlighted the large contribution made by ‘knowledge-intensive industries and services’ to our economy—some 44% of GDP depends on this type of economic activity which, Cox argued, rests on the investment we make in the higher education sector.

Of course, the fact that British science and higher education are very efficient is not cast-iron proof that an increase in the science budget will pay off, and Cox wasn’t afraid to admit that. In a series of playful digs at social scientists, he contended that just because they can’t calculate exactly what the return on our investment will be, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it—doubling the science and university budget, he suggests, is ‘a reasonable gamble’.

It’s reasonable not least because it would be pretty cheap. Cox closed with ‘that’s a fully costed policy—it’ll increase public spending by about £20 billion by 2020, which will be offset by economic growth.’

To try to put this into Scienceogrammed terms—pounds per person per year—that £20 billion is around £300 per person per year, whilst that 44% of our economy dependent on ‘knowledge-intensive industries and services’ comes in at around £11,000 per person. That means we’d need the knowledge-intensive part of our economy to grow by just 3% over seven years for Cox’s plan to break even.

Cox urged the academic community to come together in support of increased funding: ‘It will only happen if scientists, engineers, arts and humanities come together and…lobby, as one, for a knowledge economy.’

It’s exciting and encouraging to see a hugely popular scientist deliver a prize lecture with science funding as its central theme. Now, let’s get the figures in context, and really get the science funding debate going.

If you missed it, you can watch the lecture online on the Royal Society website.

Categories: Royal Society

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