Scientists say UK risks losing innovation edge

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain risks decades of slow economic decline unless it invests heavily in research, which at the moment is one of the country’s few genuine areas of economic competitive advantage, leading scientists said on Tuesday.

A researcher works in a laboratory at the National Institute for Medical Research in London April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The Royal Society, an influential science academy whose members include more than 60 Nobel laureates, said Britain’s current technological advantage could be wiped out by the United States, China, India, France and Germany, who it said had “ramped up spending in science to boost their economies.”

“History shows us that new technologies drive economic development -- look at the industrial and digital revolutions,” said Martin Taylor, chair of a Royal Society panel which published a report on the future of science in Britain.

The report lamented Britain’s lack of enthusiasm for investing in science during the global recession. It accused Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government, which faces an election by June, of cutting university budgets by 600 million pounds while others were pouring more money in.

France had promised an 35 billion euro investment in the “knowledge economy,” it said, while Germany plans to increase its federal budget for education and research by 12 billion euros by 2013.

“The UK has been in the top two of the scientific premier league for the last 350 years. It would seem obvious that politicians would recognize the need to invest in this competitive advantage rather than cutting funds,” Taylor said at a briefing to launch the report.

The report, entitled The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, said science was key to any long-term strategy for economic growth and said that while Britain’s record for innovation was good, it was also fragile.

Patents granted to British universities increased by 136 percent between 2000 and 2008, it said, and university spin outs or business ventures employed 14,000 people in the year 2007/08 and had a turnover of 1.1 billion pounds.

But it also pointed to weaknesses in business research and development spending, which in 2007 was around 1.14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Britain compared with 1.9 percent in the United States and 1.8 percent in Germany.

David Sainsbury, a former science minister and a member of the report’s panel, said Britain had to compete on expertise since labor costs were relatively high.

“We cannot compete with countries such as China and India on the basis of low wages,” he said in a statement with the report.

“Science and innovation must ... be the basis of the strategy for growth which we need to have as we go into a tough period of fiscal consolidation.”

Editing by Dominic Evans