Last week Professor John O’Keefe of University College London was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in Stockholm. He discovered the ‘place cells’ in the brain that help us to map our location. The UK is second only to the USA in our number of Nobel Laureates.
This reflects the fact that the UK is a world leader in science, engineering, technology and social sciences. There are plenty of statistics and world rankings that prove this point, but what matters to government isn’t an abstract notion of scientific excellence, it is the impact of this globally excellent science on the UK’s economy and the health, wellbeing and security of its citizens.
Science forms the backbone of knowledge economies. In this context, the UK could not have a better grid position in the ‘global race’ to the top of an increasingly knowledge-intensive global market for goods and services.
It is science that is needed to provide the answers to the grand challenges facing our society, from climate change to influenza pandemics. At a global scale, 7 billion humans can only live on this planet because we have modified our environment through the application of science. As we deplete natural resources and change our climate, science will be pivotal in the effort to achieve a sustainable modified environment capable of supporting more than 7 billion people around the world.
However, the UK will not succeed in the global knowledge economy and will not be able to reap the societal rewards from this scientific excellence without an ambitious, active and outward-facing science policy.
That is why the science and innovation strategy, published yesterday, matters. The strategy recognises the opportunities that excellent science offers to the UK and directly to the business of government. Crucially, the strategy also recognises the role that government – and therefore the Civil Service - must play if these opportunities are to be realised.
Government needs to ensure that the brightest minds are encouraged (and funded) to do outstanding research in world-class facilities and to facilitate the impact of that research through innovation. The strategy sets the scene for success in the next 10 years.
If the UK is to fully exploit its strengths in science and innovation, government will also need to manage the uncertainties that are implicit in technological advance. My annual report for 2014 concludes that we must seek to manage risks rather than avoid them, an approach fully consistent with the way we are seeking to reform the Civil Service generally.
Science doesn’t only matter to government, it matters in government too – not just in the science community but across the Civil Service more generally. Digital innovation is already reshaping how public services are delivered. In my review of the Internet of Things, I will make clear that these emerging technologies could ultimately revolutionise how civil servants work and provide better outcomes for society as a whole.
Civil Service reforms have made policy-making open by default. Scientific evidence is therefore becoming integral to the development of effective policy. At the same time, an emphasis on the impact of publicly funded research has brought scientists closer to the centre of the policy-making process.
Government is supported by a network of departmental chief scientific advisers and a wide range of specialist advice in particular policy areas. This network plays an important role in the policy development process but also springs into action at times of crisis, for example providing advice during the Fukushima crisis in 2011 and the Somerset floods of 2014.
In a diverse range of policy areas from sustainable energy to healthy ageing, science is making its mark on policy. The strategy, published yesterday, therefore rightly flags the need to think carefully about departmental science budgets in future spending reviews.
Science matters to government. The strategy recognises just how much. Science is overwhelmingly important for the UK’s economic success and our species’ continued relationship with our planet.