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Nurse highlights funding at Dimbleby lecture

February 29, 2012

Yesterday evening Sir Paul Nurse gave the Richard Dimbleby lecture on BBC One, in which he discussed the importance of science, its influence and the role it will play in our economy.

Sir Paul, who has been involved in research for over 40 years, explained his hopes for the future: “We need more science in government, the board room and public services; we need more funding for science; we need greater engagement with the public and a society comfortable with science.”

A key element of this lecture was the role of science in addressing the UK and global economic situation. He described science as “absolutely essential to drive our economy”.

Sir Paul emphasised the importance of uncertainty in research (something the EPSRC may have been shocked to hear) and he emphasised: “In the UK we have the freedom to do science and we need to keep it that way. We have to keep our spirit of adventure: to take risks and be prepared sometimes to fail as research at the cutting edge is not always successful.”

“For science to flourish a broad portfolio of research investment is required. There is a continuum of research, ranging from discovery science through research aimed at translating knowledge for application, on to subsequent innovation ultimately leading to the development of new technologies. The temptation to invest too heavily in a particular part of this spectrum should be resisted.”

Quoting Sir George Porter (a fellow Nobel laureate, Royal Society head and Dimbleby lecturer), Sir Paul explained: “To feed applied science by starving basic science is like economising on the foundations of a building so it may be built higher: it’s only a matter of time before the whole edifice crumbles.”

We are all acutely aware that the collaboration between science, Government and industry is as crucial as it is complicated. There are many barriers to surmount and Sir Paul examined the difference between the timescales worked on by science, politics and business.

Politicians serving a five-year term in office will have different priorities to a business that wants a return on investment as soon as possible, and research that may be looking at collecting evidence over decades before arriving at a view that may still be transitory.

Sir Paul highlighted just one example: “In the years following privatisation [of utilities], there was a collapse in spend on research and development. Good for short-term profits, maybe, but not for long-term sustainability or long-term profits.”

In the middle of the heated debate over NHS reforms, Sir Paul also expressed his future vision of the NHS as “a healthcare producer as well as a healthcare provider”. He believes that, as the health service is owned by the public, the public will be more willing to participate in research and trials that may lead to advancements in treatments for future generations.

This idea of patients becoming more involved in medical research, even just by supplying their data, was first laid out in the Government’s Life Sciences strategy. Today, Twitter was alive today with science policy wonks asking the Government for an update on this strategy.

“Good science needs good long-term support and the UK must look at the scale and the scope of the funding it provides for science, both from public and private sources. The Government has protected science in the recent cuts, which is very welcome. But even so, in real terms, support for science has been reduced. The Government needs greater courage to properly support it’s stated aspiration of harnessing science and engineering to re-balance the economy towards innovation-based sustainable growth.”

Sir Paul’s Dimbleby lecture will remain available to watch on BBC iPlayer for a limited time.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 10:59 pm

    Fundamentally it was all jolly good stuff but, at the end, when Sir Paul called for a New Enlightenment to save us from the encroaching darkness and everyone in the audience applauded we couldn’t help thinking: “Start a New Enlightenment? What a good idea. So how do we do that, then?” It’s all very well telling us where we need to end up but what we really need is for someone to tell us how to to actually get there. Or at least how to get started on that journey.

    • February 29, 2012 11:46 pm

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If we are to start this journey towards enlightenment then advocates of science such as Sir Paul need these sorts of opportunities to inspire people. But what’s the use if it all dwells in the realms of ideology, without effecting real change?

      His discussion on the communication of science is the real key to a new enlightenment. We need people in industry and government to collaborate more effectively with researchers and to break down the barriers that exist. This comes from more effective communication, mutual respect and long-term support. That means that it is the responsibility of every researcher, science journalist and scientific institution to take up the gauntlet thrown down by Sir Paul.

      Purse String Theory will be covering this very soon, so keep an eye out.

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