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New U.K. Chief Scientific Adviser Describes Innovative Plans for Addressing Challenges
While the British government's investment in basic research is only a fraction of that of the United States, the United Kingdom has a highly productive scientific community that is being encouraged to collaborate in new ways with industry at home and with global partners abroad, according to Britain's chief scientific adviser.
John Beddington, who took over the science adviser's post in January from Sir David King, spoke at AAAS on 17 September about his government's efforts to encourage science and innovation in a changing world. He told of the challenges facing British science, many of them—such as the need to recruit more students into scientific and technical fields—echoing those facing American science as well.
Beddington had been professor of applied population biology at Imperial College in London, and in his new post is responsible for the quality of scientific advice across all agencies of the British government. "What it means, of course, is that I'm an expert in nothing," Beddington joked, "but I have a very, very good phone book and can talk to people who actually know about these things."
Although the British government's investment in science, engineering and technology has doubled over the past seven to eight years, Beddington said, "in terms of the U.S. budget, we are relatively small." Still, he cited a recent study showing that the United Kingdom is second among the leading industrial nations (the so-called G-8) in its share of scientific journal citations and second in its share of high-impact papers. He said British scientists lead the G-8 in the number of journal citations per million dollars of Gross Domestic Product, another measure of scientific productivity.
"Small is really beautiful," Beddington said. It also makes science policy and funding decisions more manageable, he added. All of the top science advisers from government agencies and the chief executives of the British research councils meet with Beddington and his staff at least once every three months, he said. "It's a real advantage," Beddington said. "We have this opportunity to work together, and that is extremely attractive."
As part of its effort to encourage innovation, the British government has been urging academic scientists to seek more partnerships with industry when appropriate. He said the number of patents issued to academic scientists has been increasing and British universities have floated some 30 business spinoffs in the past three years. "There is a real atmosphere of engagement with innovation," Beddington said. The government has a Technology Strategy Board that develops joint ventures between business and academic institutions. It also has been giving significant tax credits to encourage such ventures.
Beddington, who spoke at the invitation of the AAAS International Office, acknowledged that all is not rosy.
"We have problems that are not dissimilar from the problems you have in the U.S.A.," he told the standing-room crowd in the AAAS Auditorium. "Really, the absolute key to the future is the young people actually going into our universities." On that score, there had been a substantial decline in the 2002-2003 time frame in the number of British students taking "A-level" courses in the sciences prior to entering college. The trend has reversed somewhat, Beddington said, though "it's still not looking too good in physics." He attributed the recent increase in A-level course enrollments, at least in part, to a program that sends scientists and engineers into the schools to talk about their work. More than 20,000 scientists have been volunteering their time for program, Beddington said.
Despite such initiatives, British universities—like those in the United States—continue to find that many of their graduate students come from abroad. Beddington said it was "a very good thing" that his nation has been educating many students from abroad, but he also said it is important for the future of the work force to encourage more British students to study scientific and technical subjects.
Looking outwards, Beddington said, the United Kingdom has been pursuing participation in scientific collaborations and projects, including large-scale computing facilities. His government has been looking for ways to learn from other nations and share with them as well. The outreach efforts include a Science and Innovation Network that now has 90 staff members in 24 countries worldwide, including 15 in seven U.S. cities. In addition, the United Kingdom's Research Councils now are funding about 1000 research collaborations with U.S. partners, estimated to be worth around $1.7 billion.
The global challenges are familiar and daunting—climate change, population growth and urbanization, infectious diseases, energy and food security, alleviating poverty. Like his predecessor David King, Beddington said there is no question that climate change is real and must be addressed. "You have a world consensus that it's happening," Beddington said. "The fact of it is well-accepted." Keeping global temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century will involve "an enormous amount of effort," he said.
Beddington also highlighted the challenge of population growth (with a potential for 9 billion people worldwide by 2050 compared to 6.5 billion now) and urbanization. Globally, 60% of the population may live in urban areas by 2030 compared to 47% now.
There have been successes in alleviating poverty, with China and India bringing significant parts of their populations out of abject poverty in recent years. Still, 1.1 billion people worldwide live on less than 75 cents a day, Beddington said, citing World Bank statistics. And 854 million people suffer malnutrition and hunger. As poverty is alleviated, large increases in demand are expected, including demand for energy resources. Beddington said there is expected to be a 50% increase in world energy demand by 2030, primarily in the developing world.
In tackling some of the big scientific challenges, Beddington can draw on a program he inherited from his predecessor. Called Foresight, it is an effort to help the government think systematically about the future and undertake projects to solve specific problems. The projects now underway include one aimed at reducing the nation's obesity problem. Most adults in the UK are overweight, Beddington said, and it has been estimated that 60% of men and 50% of women could be clinically obese by 2050.
Another project aims to improve the mental well-being of the British throughout their lives by addressing such problems as learning difficulties in childhood, stress in the workplace, and cognitive decline in old age. Another Foresight project just getting underway will explore how land use could change in the United Kingdom over the next 50 years and where the greatest tensions and pressures over land use may arise.
In questions after his lecture, Beddington was asked how best to divide government research money between basic and applied research. "Society as a whole has to decide on its balance between what might be called blue-skies research—curiosity-driven research—and that which is actually solving particular applied problems," Beddington responded. "I don't think there's a universal solution to it."
But he cautioned against extreme views on either side of the question. "Where in fact different societies choose to actually have that compromise is very difficult," he said. Scientists, politicians and members of society as whole have to sort it out. He noted that some commentators are saying that society cannot afford curiosity-driven science and should focus on practical problems, notably climate change. "That is an interesting view, not one I entirely share," Beddington said.
29 September 2008