Science Question Time – Growth

This post was written by Haralambos Dayantis, a freelance science journalist.

18th June 2012 saw the seventh Science Question Time event, run by CaSE in collaboration with the Biochemical Society and Alice Bell of Imperial College. With ‘Growth’ as the evening’s theme the panel discussed the concept of economic growth, and how science and innovation can help to deliver it.

You listen to the full debate on our SoundCloud page.

Chairing the discussion was Dr Jack Stilgoe, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Business School. He was joined by Dr Penny Attridge, an Investment Director at SPARK Impact, which manages the EU-backed £25m NorthWest Biomedical fund. Dr Rebekah Higgitt, a historian of science from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, provided a historical perspective. Professor Mariana Mazzucato, of the University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), gave her expertise on the economics of growth and innovation. James Meadway of the new economics foundation was on hand to offer alternative views on a number of economic issues.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics related to science, innovation and the economy. The debate became heated at times, with James Meadway highly critical of George Osborne, describing him as being “on course for winning the coveted title of worst Chancellor of the Exchequer in British history.” According to Meadway, the decision to cut spending during recession was “fundamentally misguided” and “ignores 80 years of progress in macroeconomics”.

One topic which drew a lot of interest was the apparent failure of UK institutions to capitalise on excellence in science. According to Dr Penny Attridge, the problem lies in our expectations; we expect scientists to be excellent at business, yet it requires a completely different skill set. Attridge argued that scientists “should be doing research because that’s what they’re great at; don’t suddenly expect them to transmute into businesspeople!”

The question of when the government should intervene in R&D came up several times during the evening. Leading the response, Mariana Mazzucato quoted Keynes, saying that “what government should do is owe us what wouldn’t have happened anyway, without that policy.” She was also very vociferous on the failure of governments to get fair returns for their investments, calling for governments to be “smarter”. As an example, the Google algorithm was initially funded by the US National Science Foundation, yet they failed to yield any returns from Google’s subsequent success. Attridge argued that government funds like hers do manage to yield returns, which can then be reinvested into further innovations.

Alice Frost, from the Higher Education Funding Council, asked how one can compare science to other aspects of government. Is it fair to brand science as investment rather than expenditure? Meadway argued that “the evidence for science spending as such driving GDP growth is not brilliant”, citing several examples of attempts to gather such evidence. Instead, he argued for a move away from focusing on GDP. Referring to the boom leading up to 2008, he pointed out that “growth is not turning into a rising standard of living; it’s actually turning into great big piles of consumer debt and an almighty great crash in 2008 at the end of it.”

Baroness Sharp, formerly of SPRU, was concerned about the hold that the financial sector has over the country, in particular the Treasury. Meadway agreed, asking why finance is the only industry with the privileged position of a seat in the Treasury and calling for it to be moved to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. Mazzucato argued that because the banking sector is so attractive to science graduates, it can undermine investment in human capital, particularly science degrees. The government therefore needs to make alternative careers, such as education and manufacturing, more attractive to science graduates

Alice Bell was interested in the democratisation of innovation, and asked if museums should encourage conversations about investable future technology. Dr Higgitt liked the idea of using museum galleries as a way of asking for problems which engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs could look into solving.

Other issues discussed included the value of diversity of institutions, the need for a clear vision in policy, and the role of education in growth. To find out more, listen to the debate in full on our SoundCloud page.

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