One of the things that the UK can claim to be is a genuine world leader in science. Modern science was arguably born in the UK with the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, as was the Industrial Revolution, which married together scientific innovation with a “can do” spirit that made our economy the most powerful in the world. Today, we continue to produce some of the most important global scientific breakthroughs – and do so very cost-effectively.
I am delighted that BBC2 is celebrating this success with its Genius of Invention season and “celebrating” is exactly the right word. Last year saw a fair degree of pride in being British and the Olympic Opening Ceremony celebrated British scientific success and inventiveness. More young people are taking science at GCSE and A-level and the Government is investing in science when times are tough and many other areas of spending are being cut . I recently interviewed the Chancellor, George Osborne, on Radio 4 and asked him how we make the UK the best place in the world to do science.
I have a few ideas of my own. The first is investment, both public and private. Our Government invests a smaller amount of our national wealth in science than many of our competitor economies. Our companies are also behind overseas businesses in investing in research and development. We have success stories such as drug therapies developed from ground-breaking British research into monoclonal antibodies, and the fact that more than 95 per cent of the world’s mobile phones contain British-designed microprocessors. However, we need to do better. Although we essentially invented the computer, where is our Apple or Microsoft? We need to invest more and be braver and bolder in backing our scientific ideas.
A second issue is that science is often seen as being remote from people. To counter this we need to raise our general science literacy, so people can understand what science is and what it can and cannot do for them. That means good teaching in schools and high-quality engagement of the public with science. We want passionate communicators like David Attenborough and Brian Cox explaining the wonders of science. This is a long road but we are in need of boardroom members, parliamentarians and other opinion-formers who are more science-savvy.
Thirdly, scientists have to play their part. Their research must be of the highest quality and they must be open and engaged with the public so society feels comfortable with science. Curiosity-driven discovery research is essential as it keeps standards high, but we scientists have to recognise that those who invest in science expect a return on that investment that will lead to improvements in our quality of life and to sustainable economic growth. Scientists must keep an eye on potential applications of their work and have the skills and contacts to help make the most of their ideas. Investors also need to be more strategic in their thinking as it can take a long time for scientific discoveries to translate into tangible benefits.
We are in the process of rediscovering our national pride in our great scientific prowess. It is one of the “natural resources” that the UK is really rich in. Whether it is advanced materials such as graphene, biotechnology or any of the others areas of science that the UK is a world leader in, if we play our cards right, science and innovation could be the key to long-term sustainable economic growth, just as it was in the past.
Nobel prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse is President of the Royal Society.
The Genius of Invention season starts on Monday BBC2. Vote for your number one invention! Make your choice from our list of 50 and vote in our poll.