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Investing in the science base

25 August 2010

Central government and the professional institutions are not the only ones to lend their voices to the current debate concerning the value of science to our nation's wellbeing. Most of us would agree that the UK must continue to invest in the science base to aid economic recovery, and this sentiment is echoed by Pam Waddell (pictured below), director of Birmingham Science City, one of six such organisations across the country, which were brought into being by the previous government. In this week's newsletter, Dr Waddell describes how this essential campaigning is progressing at a local level, with particular reference to the work of the West Midlands regional initiative.

At Birmingham Science City we believe continued investment in science, technology and engineering is crucial to help secure the economic recovery of the UK. In particular, sustained investment needs to be maintained in both underpinning research and the commercialisation of science and technology. A sustainable knowledge-based economy, exploiting the nation’s undisputed excellence in science and technology, requires strong research infrastructure and the means to bring universities and business together to develop commercially viable products and processes.

When analysing the research and development projects in need of investment, it’s crucial that a wide base of projects is considered. Backing likely winners isn’t an approach that has worked in the past, so investment needs to be far and wide to ensure the development of commercially viable products and solutions that are essential for economic recovery.
Likewise, a diversity of successful models of effective exploitation of research developed in the UK and elsewhere need to be considered and developed. We hope the recent news of continued investment into national technology centres - crucial in aligning scientific developments with commercial objectives - is maintained with a new government.  These and other approaches to enhancing knowledge transfer, such as those proposed in the Dyson report earlier in the year, have an important role to play in the UK’s ongoing recovery from the recession. 

To develop new products and solutions, the UK also needs a broad base of skills and expertise, so investment in the development of scientists and engineers of the future is imperative. Earlier in the year, the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta) stated that the economy requires almost 30,000 highly skilled scientists and engineers every year over the next seven years.

The scale of the challenge for recruitment in these areas becomes clearer when set against figures from EngineeringUK, which estimates 7.4 per cent fewer engineers are graduating today than in 2004. It looks like there’s a lot of work to do to ensure we are meeting the needs of the economy with a plethora of skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experts.  It’s clear the first steps must include improving the esteem and teaching of science and engineering as recommended in the Dyson report.

Within Birmingham Science City we are taking such a range of partnership approaches towards a vision of science and technology improving prosperity and quality of life. 

We have invested £57m in world-class, shared R&D infrastructure in areas of regional excellence at Birmingham and Warwick Universities. However, all this S&T potential will not be realised unless there is a meeting of culture between the business and science bases, so dedicated business engagement managers have been put in place. They are liaising with businesses from the start-up to the international players, supporting university professors to strike new relationships with businesses as strategic partners, from Aston Martin to 3Cs, a small company in Malvern.

Since there is no innovation without a customer, Birmingham Science City is also driving new partnership approaches to stimulating market demand for innovation. We are working with new business structures models such as user-led demonstrator programmes and public sector outcomes-focussed procurement mechanisms. For example, Birmingham City University, the University of Wolverhampton and Birmingham City Council are working towards making Birmingham the first wireless city, while expertise at Aston University and Worcester University is set to put us at the forefront of ocular allergy with the establishment of the UK’s first treatment centre.

Birmingham Science City is also working to raise the esteem of STEM subjects. We are supporting Thinktank, the regional Science Centre, to engage young people in the excitement and career opportunities of science and technology.

We believe continued investment in these types of collaborative large scale projects, underpinned by strong S&T but actively engaging business and other users, together with development of a skilled workforce for the future is crucial to ensure the UK benefits from its leading position in the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine.
 As featured earlier in the year in both the Dyson and Royal Society's reports, the advancement of science and technology must be central to all policy making and we hope this is at the fore-front of minds in future policy development and allocation of funding. Ultimately, by succeeding as a ‘knowledge economy’ and harnessing the innovation throughout the nation, the economy will reap the rewards.
Pam Waddell, Director
Birmingham Science City

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