Editorial

Nature 462, 389-390 (26 November 2009) | doi:10.1038/462389b; Published online 25 November 2009

Conservative vacuum

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Britain's main opposition party needs policies for research and for universities.

Last year, Britain's higher-education sector generated around £33 billion (US$55 billion) of the UK gross domestic product, putting it ahead of the aircraft, advertising and pharmaceutical industries, according to figures published earlier this month by economists at the University of Strathclyde, UK. It is astonishing, then, that with all the Conservative Party's rhetoric on how it intends to drag Britain out of recession, it hasn't formulated policy on universities and research. And yet there is a strong possibility that the Conservatives will be leading the country by June next year.

The next government needs to have a long-term vision for the role of science. The Labour government took a bold and welcome move with the 2004 publication of its 10-year science and innovation framework. Any new government must either carry this torch forwards or light a new one. Through the framework, priorities for science and the direction the government wanted to focus on were set in the appropriate long-term context.

At the same time, government spending on research and development (R&D) was ring-fenced and surged to more than £3 billion a year. No one expects spending on this scale to continue in the current tight fiscal environment. Indeed, the state of the economy only makes the case stronger for clear long-term policies, which will help to ensure that spending is wise.

Radical thinking on the future direction of universities will be needed as part of this long-term vision. But Labour's more recent higher-education framework, published at the beginning of this month, is less inspiring than its 2004 document. The framework hints that the Labour government would like to see funding for university research further concentrated in the top universities and in key strategic science areas, but the government lacks the confidence to say what it really wants. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether Britain needs more than 100 universities all chasing after the same limited pot of research funds, and whether this money would be better spent across fewer of those institutions. At least Labour's whiffs of a stance on these issues are better than the deafening silence of the Conservative Party.

Rightly, both Labour and the Conservatives remain committed to the current dual funding system for the foreseeable future. It is through this system, in which universities win a pot of research funding from the government in line with their demonstrated research excellence, and also competitively gain funding from research councils, that universities have the freedom to plan and invest as they see fit.

Creative thinking is also sorely needed to improve the exploitation of Britain's research base. This issue has long been on the agenda and Labour has taken some strides forwards, including establishing the Technology Strategy Board, which provides competitive funding for high-tech businesses. But significant increases in private investment in R&D are still lacking, and are as important as ever in the long term.

To be fair, the Conservatives have signalled a desire to support the high-tech commercial sectors, establishing a task force led by James Dyson, a British inventor, that will report its recommendations on how to improve UK innovation to the party before the general election. But its agenda is a worrying indication of the party's unsophisticated appreciation of the interplay between science and innovation: there is no reference to the importance of continuing to support the research needed to yield the discoveries on which products and services are based.

As Britain's next general election approaches, Labour can point to a strong record of personal commitment to science and science-based enterprise from its leaders and of supportive actions. So far, the Conservatives, in contrast, are a vision-free zone.


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