As we enter a period of more economic uncertainty and the pressure on the public finances intensifies, higher education is facing considerable challenges. We are pressing for continued public investment in research in these straitened times, but to help us in our fight for funds, we know we have to focus on communicating the findings of publicly-funded research to the people who pay for it – the British taxpayer. We must champion universities’ central involvement in making new, exciting discoveries, which boost our economy and improve lives.
The annual British Science Festival in Aberdeen is a great example of cheering research on. It showcased some of the amazing work that goes on in universities across the country, giving the public a chance to see exactly what it is that researchers do with the public funding that they receive.
This year’s science festival once again prompted debate about the importance of public investment in science and the need for this to continue to maintain UK competitiveness and support economic recovery.
Sir James Dyson has recently drawn attention to the role of R&D, bright young graduates and collaboration with universities in creating the 30% rise in annual profits and strong product demand that his company has seen this year. More than 85% of Dyson’s products are exported outside of the UK adding to UK wealth and national prosperity.
At the Festival itself, Professor Brian Cox spoke of investment in science as a “sensible gamble” noting that “44-45% of GDP comes from knowledge intensive services”. The implication being that increasing public investment in research is likely to generate a positive effect for the UK economy as a whole.
But he also tells us that the scientific community cannot rest on its laurels. People must understand what scientific research is doing in order to encourage broader public support for investment in science. The most recent IPSOS-MORI poll on public attitudes to science shows that nearly 80% of respondents agreed that science makes our lives easier and 75% agreed that scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth. However, only around 40% of people said that they felt informed about science.
There is little doubt that society reaps huge benefits from the UK research base but we need to work hard to communicate this in a way that fires people’s imaginations.