Lord Sainsbury has called for an overhaul of the way science and technology is taught in Britain, saying that without a new approach we risk losing our place in the global economy. He says more specialist science teachers must be trained or recruited, and that science students must be given better careers advice.
The report, entitled Race to the Top, sets out how Britain must change if it is to compete with emerging economies. Sainsbury says we can maintain our edge by investing in research and moving the economy into high value goods and services. The alternative - a race to the bottom - is inevitable if companies maintain a myopic focus on lowering costs.
Lord Sainsbury, a former minister for science and innovation, was asked to trawl through the government's policies relating to science, technology, investment, and education.
He makes several other key recommendations: The government should give more support to universities trying to spin out companies based on their research, and set so-called knowledge transfer targets for universities; put the Technology Strategy Board in charge of working with the research councils to better coordinate research efforts; and simplify the way businesses can get access to funds.
The review was broadly welcomed by all the major science bodies. The Institute of Physics (IoP), the Royal Society, and the newly elevated Technology Strategy Board all issued statements praising the ex-minister's plans to invigorate science and technology in the UK.
Royal Society president Martin Rees said the review is a timely reminder of the role science plays in the economy. He warned that a fragmented approach to science and innovation means Britain does not always fully capitalise on its resources.
There was a note of caution raised by the IoP, however. Chief executive Dr Robert Kirby-Harris said: "While it is important that the economic impact of science research can be considered during funding applications, there is a danger that basic research in more speculative areas could be neglected. Some of the most important scientific innovations in the past century and a half have been the result of basic research that had no specific economic end in mind."
He also argued that the government needs to be more open to ideas from science-based businesses when they award procurement contracts, and said that only time would tell if the people in charge of the cash were able to make this cultural shift. ®