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Science is a winner for Britain – cutting it would be folly

9 May, 2013
Venki Ramakrishnan (right) at the Diamond Light Source in 2010.

Venki Ramakrishnan (right) at the Diamond Light Source in 2010.

The US, Germany and China are increasing research spending. We would be foolish to do the opposite, writes Venki Ramakrishnan.

Fourteen years ago, my wife and I took a decision to move from USA to Britain. I took a 40 per cent pay cut, and we left children and close family behind. We were willing to give up so much not because of any personal ties here, but because my scientific work had reached a crucial stage and this was the best possible place to pursue it. The stability of UK research funding, especially at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, would allow me to work on an important but challenging problem. And I would be joining an outstanding intellectual environment, where a collegiate approach to sharing resources, including expensive facilities and equipment, is part of the culture.

It was a decision that paid off handsomely. I have done the best work of my life in Cambridge, and was honoured to share the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and to receive a knighthood.

My experience is not unique. Britain continues to punch well above its weight in science. The impact of British institutions like the LMB compares well with elite international rivals on any level, but when impact per pound is calculated, we are comfortably ahead. British science generates extraordinary returns on investment, whether measured in great advances such as DNA sequencing, monoclonal antibodies and MRI scanning that have won Nobel prizes, or in spinout companies and economic growth. The reason we succeed is a meritocratic scientific culture that encourages originality and initiative, and a funding system that provides stability while demanding efficient use of resources. British scientists know that sufficient funds will be spent on the best people over a sustained period of time, so they are free to focus on research.

I am grateful for what Britain’s support for science has allowed me to achieve. But I am also deeply concerned that the very factors that drew me here could now be threatened by cuts in next month’s spending round. It was reassuring when the Government ring-fenced the science budget in 2010, but no guarantee of similar protection has been offered this time. I have also heard worrying arguments that in light of that benign settlement, science must now take its turn to share the pain.

Were he to heed these arguments, the Chancellor would be making a grievous mistake. British scientists are already among the most efficient in the world. The normal ways of optimising efficiency, such as funding the most promising young scientists or senior ones with a proven track record, and avoiding waste by shared use of equipment, are already routine. If science funding is cut, there will be no alternative to eliminating productive jobs, closing important facilities, and reducing our research output.

The damage this would inflict would be irreversible. It takes over a decade to train a young scientist, who has often decided to forego a lucrative career in the corporate world. If such people are forced out of research, it is not possible simply to rehire them later – they will have new careers. A future government that wanted to invest more in science would have to invest in training a new workforce. It would be foolish to address a temporary fiscal crisis by impairing our long-term capacity for research. Also at risk is the excellent reputation of British science, which must compete internationally to thrive. An attack on the science budget would send a message that although our research is superb, our Government does not value it.

Rivals such as the USA, Germany, China and other Asian countries are increasing science spending even during austerity, because they recognize that a strong scientific culture is essential for economic growth and prosperity. We should do likewise. Doing the opposite would make it very difficult not only to recruit world-class researchers from overseas, but also to retain our best home-grown talent. It would also deliver insignificant savings: the science budget is about £5 billion, just 0.7 per cent of public spending. Any cut would barely dent the £120 billion deficit.

Since coming to Cambridge, I have discouraged many approaches to move back to the USA, where I would make a much higher salary. I have done this despite our continued separation from children and family because I enjoy working here, and because I feel a responsibility to help younger scientists to get as much out of Britain’s extraordinary research culture as I have. I am already established here, but if we’re to attract and keep the best young talent as well as researchers at their peak, we have to invest in support that will encourage them to make the same decision I made 14 years ago. The alternative is the inexorable decline of a great scientific culture — a culture without which we cannot hope to succeed in the increasingly competitive, knowledge-based global economy.

Professor Venki Ramakrishnan won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, and is a Wellcome Trust Investigator at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

A version of this article appeared in The Times on 7/5/2013.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jo Payne permalink
    10 May, 2013 11:32 am

    Well said. Given that so many sectors of British industry rely on the pipeline of science graduates and innovative technologies, any cut would be folly indeed.

  2. Norma Holmes Martin permalink
    10 May, 2013 9:56 pm

    sometimes the need for restraints are needed. They can keep us from being mistaken for students of Frankenstein, and no pun intended. Some of the most unethical work is performed by so called well meaning people. I should know. The name Norma Holmes Martin is well known there are Wellcome Truist.


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