Scientific research has transformed the way we go about our everyday lives – from the technologies we use to communicate to the tools we use to diagnose, prevent and treat illnesses. As someone who has worked in the hospice movement, I was acutely aware of the important role that science and research plays in prolonging the time people have at some of the most difficult times in their lives.
In recent weeks, we have seen how a simple blood test can rapidly diagnose whether chest pain is being caused by a heart attack. This seems relatively simple, though for the one million people suffering from chest pain who visit A&E each year, this test will make a real difference. It can diagnose a heart attack much more rapidly than current tests, allowing patients to receive the treatment they need or to return home quickly, avoiding an anxious and sometimes unnecessary wait.
Such breakthroughs have made, and continue to make, a profound difference to our lives as individuals and to the UK economy as a whole.
Stable, long-term Government investment would help cement this country’s global competitiveness, give confidence to the private sector, make the UK an even more attractive place to do business, increase employment opportunities and deliver further wide-ranging societal and health benefits.
If we want to hear more of these benefits, we must protect investment in UK research.
The Government have an opportunity to renew their commitment to it in the upcoming spending review.
A successful research base relies on stable, long-term investment by a network of funders across the public and private sectors. Each funder has an important role to play, and if one moves away, the others would be unable to step in and compensate.
The Government are a key part of that funding network. By providing underlying support to our world-class universities and research institutes, as well as individual support to talented researchers, Government investment creates a healthy research environment, in which industry and charities can invest.
The current Government have recognised the link between research and development spending and national productivity, and they have even highlighted science and innovation as a key driver in their plan to make the UK a more productive nation.
Evidence has shown that public sector investment in research encourages the private sector to invest too. Analysis shows that an extra £1 of public funding would give rise to an increase in private funding of between £1.13 and £1.60.
Though the Government protected science in 2010, when the goal of eliminating the deficit is necessary, there are concerns that with the true value of the science budget eroding, research could be at risk.
In the Russell Group’s words, any further reductions in the budget would be, “entirely counterproductive for the long-term health of the economy and risk losing the UK’s competitive advantage.”
As a nation, we punch above our weight in terms of the outcomes our research sector achieves relative to the amount of money invested overall. On many measures, the sector is the most efficient in the world, and strikingly better than many of its competitors.
But, many other countries are substantially increasing their support for the sector.
If we are unable to maintain our world-leading reputation, we risk falling behind and losing talent and business overseas, or to different sectors altogether.
We saw that in the 1980s, when cuts in research drove many UK scientists to the USA. We do not want that to happen again.
Therefore the Government should be maintaining the budget in line with inflation, so that we can build on our successes and work towards a UK that realises its full potential. We should seek to match the level of expenditure of our competitor countries, of around 2.9 per cent of GDP.
To support this, the Government should set out a 10-year investment strategy, with a view to securing an above-inflation rise in public investment in science and research over that period.
That would help to maintain our reputation across the globe, and our lead in so many fields that will improve all our lives.
Stuart Andrew is the Conservative MP for Pudsey.