Science is Vital: Letter to my MP

I am presently attending a conference on Caliciviruses in Chile and am enjoying being immersed in both the warm spring sunshine and the latest research on this important group of pathogens. Any of you who has suffered at the hands of the ‘Winter vomiting bug’ is already closely acquainted with caliciviruses.

Although I am many miles away, my mind keeps reverting to the imminent announcement of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the health of UK science. Despite the fact that the Science is Vital campaign culminated successfully last week in a rally, a lobby, a petition with over 35,000 signatures and and meeting with the Minister for science, David Willetts, it seems unlikely that UK science will escape very significant cuts.

The situation remains grim. Despite some encouraging noises made earlier in the summer by Mr Willetts, I think the government has not properly absorbed the case for science in it’s policy formulations. I got a sense of this at the lobby of Parliament last week where I spoke to my MP, Mr Bob Stewart (Conservative, Beckenham). He asked me to make the case by providing recent examples — in half a page — of how publicly-funded science has made a significant impact on the UK economy in the past 10-15 years. My response is appended below. As you will see, if you have the stamina, the case is not easily accommodated within half a page.

Dear Bob,

I want to thank you again for making the time to meet me at the House of Commons during the Science is Vital lobby on Tuesday last. I appreciate the seriousness with which you are addressing this issue.

You asked me for evidence — summarised in half a page — of scientific research in the UK within the last 10-15 years that had made a significant economic impact. I was happy to accept this challenge since, being a scientist, evidence ought to be my forte.

Immediately below I will present a brief example of scientific impact. However, that will be followed by a more detailed consideration of the issue of how the impact of public spending on scientific research is measured, because a focus on just the tangible outputs (i.e. commercial products) of government investment in science underestimates its true value.

I haven’t had the time to do a rigorous search of the recent high-tech industrials landscape in the UK so please allow me to cite a slightly less recent example taken from the very useful and accessible report The Scientific Century, which was published by the Royal Society earlier this year.

The techniques for isolating and producing large amounts of monoclonal antibodies — molecules generated by the immune system to fight disease-causing bacteria and viruses — were developed by Cesar Milstein at the MRC labs in Cambridge in 1975. Further work by Greg Winter in the same labs in 1986 showed how to modify or ‘humanise’ these molecules so that they could be used to develop new medicines for use in humans. In the course of his work Winter founded two companies, Cambridge Antibody Technology and Domantis, which were sold on to multinational pharmaceutical companies for £702m and £230m respectively. Approximately one third of medicines currently in development are based on this antibody technology (which has been licensed to more than 50 companies worldwide) and the market value of antibody-based pharmaceuticals is estimated to be worth around $32 billion. It is worth nothing that these estimates take no account of the health and societal benefits of improved treatments. I hope you will agree that this is a powerful example of the economic worth of the original public investment in the work of Milstein and Winter.

For a more recent example, can I suggest that you keep an eye on the emerging applications of graphene, the isolation and characterisation of which won the Nobel prize for the Manchester-based physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov just over a week ago. This unusual material is formed of sheets of carbon that are only a single atom thick and has many exciting properties, for example, being unusually strong and having diverse electrical conductivity (depending on how the material is prepared). The first applications, most likely in new touch-screen technology, are expected within a couple of years.

But, as I mentioned above, it is misleading to think only in terms of the tangible benefits (i.e. new products and companies) that arise from public investment in science. The evidence that has accrued from studies of the impact of government funding of science invariably shows that the benefits to the economy are complex and multifaceted. An excellent review of this area was published in 2001 by Salter and Martin. I won’t go into it in great detail but the key points are worth highlighting.

In essence they identify six main benefits of public funding of scientific research:

Increasing the stock of knowledge — the research base generates a stream of new insights about the natural and man-made world which are the raw material for new technologies that can be commercialised.

Training skilled graduates — the university sector produces the science and engineering graduates needed to maintain our industrial capacity.

Developing new scientific instruments and methodologies — these benefits are in addition to the generation of the ‘raw material’ of new information (the traditional example cited here is the laser but a good recent example is the discovery of RNAi molecules as a potentially novel class of therapeutics).

Forming networks and social interactions (between academia and industry) — these networks are absolutely vital for ensuring the efficient transmission of results from the publicly-funded research base into the industrial sector. These interactions work both ways by making academic scientists more ‘industry-aware’

Increasing the capacity for scientific and technological problem solving — this includes not only our ability to address urgent national and international problems, such as the threat of global warming, but also societal issues (e.g. drug policy, something that the previous administration arguably handled poorly as a result of not engaging properly with its scientific advisors).

Creating new companies — oddly, though it is presumed to be a primary benefit, this factor is less significant. In part this is due to scientists not being properly prepared for the challenges of working in a commercial environment. This avenue could be bolstered by better training or improving opportunities for licensing new discoveries.

These benefits are overlapping and interlocking and are easy to overlook if the focus of our attention is on new products or companies as the most important direct outputs from spending on science.

Salter’s and Martin’s analysis emphasises the deep reach of a healthy science base into national economies. Some might argue that the UK doesn’t need to do any scientific research itself but should just aim to be good at exploiting new information as it emerges from the worldwide scientific enterprise. After all, the scientific literature is available to all and science is a pre-eminently international enterprise.

But the research has shown that the capacity of an economy to absorb new scientific information depends vitally of the presence of a strong science-base, located in universities and research institutes. This not only produces the graduates recruited by industry who are trained in the scientific method, but it also ensures that there are the academic researchers who, through personal contacts with industry, are able to help turn new information into valuable knowledge.

Let me give an example taken from my own research, which illustrates this point and also shows how the benefits of public funding of science are easily hidden from view. In the late 1990s my group started working on the structural analysis of how drugs interacted with the blood protein, human serum albumin (HSA), which is a frequent bug-bear of the pharmaceutical industry. In many cases promising new drugs have to be abandoned because they stick too tightly to HSA and are therefore not delivered efficiently to the parts of the body where they are needed. Ideally, drug companies would like to examine how each new compound binds to the protein so that they could design variations that would stick less tightly. But to do that, they needed to use the particular crystallographic methods that we had applied successfully.

Our results were published in the scientific literature and therefore easily available to industrial scientists. But we nevertheless got a lot of interest from all the major pharmaceutical companies in the UK, who invited me to give seminars our our work and to discuss in detail how we had got these experiments to work. This is not an isolated example: clearly industry values face-to-face contacts with publicly-funded researchers as a way of obtaining a deep understanding of the science.

The consultation work that I did on HSA is not recorded in any public database and it is therefore difficult for me to give a measure of the true impact of our work in this area. I am confident — anecdotally — that it has been significant. But this example shows how difficult it can be to capture the true economic value of the government’s investment in it’s science base.

Salter and Martin give more information on the particular benefit of contacts between academia and industry and note in particular the success of geographical clusters of universities and industries that have been successful in stimulating economic development in California and Massachusetts in the USA and in Cambridge and Dundee in the UK.

Even where a linear relationship between inputs and outputs seems workable, there can be hidden difficulties that need to be lubricated with public funding. Let me give one further example from my work to show how government funding of R&D work is needed to kick-start scientific and technological developments that industry is reluctant to pick up because the benefits are too uncertain. My group also investigates foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV) and has worked out the structure of an important protein from the virus known as 3C. This work has created the opportunity to develop antiviral drugs that could be used to control outbreaks of the virus. I am sure you remember the 2001 UK outbreak which cost the economy somewhere in the region of £6 billion. Even the much more modest outbreak in 2007 inflicted costs of several hundred million pounds.

And yet, despite the likely economic value of new measures to control the disease, I found it impossible to attract industrial support for our efforts to find a chemical that would bind to the FMDV 3C protein and might be developed as a useful antiviral drug (in the same way that drugs have been successfully developed against HIV). The companies I spoke to were reluctant to fund early-stage investigations. I was told to come back and talk to them only after I had identified some initial compounds. Fortunately I was eventually able to source funding for this phase of the research effort through the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), but only with this public funding has this potentially valuable avenue of research been kept open.

This brings me back to Vince Cable’s speech on 8th Sept, which was echoed in your response to my first letter and stated, rather bluntly, “there can be no justification for public money being used for research that is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding.”

The main difficulty I have with this approach is that, as I have tried to show above, it seems predicated on a very narrow view of the outputs that arise from government funding of the UK research base. I think that UK policy should be based on a deeper understanding of the broad impact (and high quality) of the country’s scientific capabilities.

Mr Cable’s statement may seem like a reasonable strategy. But how will it work in practice? We already know that the vast majority of UK science is excellent – over 90% of research funding goes to labs designated as 4* or 3* by the Research Assessment Exercise. The system is working at near maximum efficiency so there is no likelihood of achieving ‘more with less.’

Moreover, how is ‘commercially valuable’ research to be identified, especially when history has taught us time and again that the value of scientific research is impossible to determine a priori?

In view of these difficulties, and if you are still willing, I wonder if you might raise questions in the house about the rigour of the evidence base for the government’s policy on cutting the science spend, particularly since it appears to be on the verge of implementing deep cuts, a policy direction that is the exact opposite of all our major and nascent competitors.

The issue does not easily boil down to pithy sound-bites or simple questions but I would like to know from Mr Cable or Mr Willetts:

Where exactly in the publicly-funded research sector has he identified the capacity to do more with less?
How will the government be able to determine what constitutes ‘commercially valuable’ research (especially within the realm of blue-sky work that is the central source of novel scientific insights that can be enormously valuable)?

I know the financial situation is perilous but I am sure that neither Mr Cable not Mr Willetts wishes to be remembered as ministers responsible for long-term damage to the UK science base — and the UK’s capacity to recover from this downturn — but that does seem to be a real possibility. Please be assured that my colleagues and I in the Science is Vital campaign will be watching developments very closely.

Yours faithfully,


P.S. I must apologise for the extreme length of this email. I know you are very busy but this issue is very important to me and, as I hope you appreciate if you have managed to read this far, rather complex. Please also note that — for the benefit of my scientific colleagues — I will publish this letter on my blog at

I want to thank Kieron Flanagan for helping me get to grips with some of the evidence on the economic value of public funding of research and in particular for directing me to the work of Salter and Martin. All mis-readings and inaccuracies are mine alone.

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12 Responses to Science is Vital: Letter to my MP

  1. Åsa Karlström says:

    Sounds like a nice conference time there Stephen (apart from the obvious problem with the virus of course…. safe to say "no actual virus present at the conference" 😉 )
    I think the problem is exactly as you voice it as of "prove to me how publicly funded science have impacted UK economy"   and as you point to in the last part of the email _there can be no justification for public money being used for research that is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding." …///…. predicated on a very narrow view of the outputs that arise from government funding of the UK research base._
    It’s the core problem imho, when everything today should be translated into numbers and "actual black numbers" and "importance => being worth a lot of money". It’s maybe more obvious looking at humanities (Greek, Art etc) although basic physics and particles are not obviuosly going to "make money" … although, maybe more than rtanslating and interpreting novels written in the 16th centrury.
    However, maybe the actual worth of science (and humanitarian science etc) is in that as a soceity we get knowledge and further on in the future we might use that knowledge for something good – although, we might not know for what right now?!
    And the things where we can see a “quick monetary gain from” in science aren’t they already sweeped up by private coorperations as well as being short term things. And of course, there is that thing with excellent stuff as DDT and what you knew then, and what to know now…

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, thanks for sharing that wonderful letter. I too am filled with dread about the CSR – I have heard too many rumors to believe that there will be a happy ending for science come Wednesday.
    Eva, how did you make your font change mid-comment? MT4 never ceases to perplex me.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Åsa – thanks for your comment. It think it’s perfectly reasonable for governments to ask scientists to make the case. But our only hope is if they are prepared to take on board the sophistication of that case and appreciate that new wonder-widget A is not the only measurable outcome of a particular piece of research. I think that Willetts understands this well enough but I haven’t yet heard statements from Vince Cable that demonstrate a similar level of understanding.
    Jenny – I think you meant to write Åsa rather than Eva (put it down to your rhinovirus infection?). I don’t know where the font variation came from but I have fixed it using my MT4 superpowers. I like to keep things tidy.

  4. Cath Ennis says:

    Eva, Åsa and I are actually the same person.
    Excellent letter, Stephen! Kudos to the whole Science is Vital team for your efforts on this campaign.

  5. Della Thomas says:

    What a well constructed and brilliantly presented case for continued science funding.  I wonder if your MP expected anything like that when he asked for you to present your argument (for want of a better word) with evidence. 
    It’s great to see and hear that people aren’t giving up, right up to the very end and that is encouraging.  All we can do now though as the CSR is only one day away, is sit tight and wait for the announcements, just like holding a lottery ticket as the numbers are announced (and then realising you haven’t won) 🙁
    I still find it difficult to consider what Julian said at the lobby as a positive statement, that anything less than 25% cuts is a great achievement for the SIV campaign. It just feels such a huge amount that we can’t economically survive on and I’m worried for the future of science & engineering and ultimately the UK as a whole.

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    @Cath – Eva, Åsa and I are actually the same person.
    That explains a lot (of my confusion).
    @Della – like you I await Wednesday’s announcement with considerable trepidation. Hopefully the campaign will have had some effect. But I think in any case it will be important for the campaign to keep going past the announcement. If deep cuts are made, we will want to hold the ministers to account for their decision.

  7. Åsa Karlström says:

     Stephen: yes, there is always hope that they will see that there are more to "gain" than "quick monetary gain from this specific reasearch project".
    Jenny: I have no idea. Clearly I have mad skills 😉

  8. Stephen Moss says:

    Stephen – I am also troubled by Cable’s comments that "there can be no justification for public money being used for research that is neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding". There is so much research that at the time of publication would appear to fall short on both counts, but that later turns out to have value. In my own area (retinal disease) a colleague and I have used information gleaned from countless publications that would have failed the ‘Cable criteria’, to guide a programme of work that should culminate in a couple of years with a new humanised monoclonal antibody. I’ll be blogging about one such antibody, Lucentis, in the next few days, with some facts and figures that will show how funding for blue skies research many years ago led to discoveries that now fuel multi-billion dollar revenues. Those revenues mostly end up overseas, but could have come to the UK had our public spending on science been in line with that of our major competitors.

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    Åsa – I agree of course. As Stephen Moss re-iterate, there are many examples of blue-skies research seeding important commercial applications that were not originally apparent.
    Stephen – I look forward to your blogpost. It will be good to have further examples of the true value of basic research. I suspect we will need to drive this message home repeatedly.

  10. Stephen – great letter and thanks for all your Science is Vital work.
    I think it’s really important to share our letters like this. It’s fuel for others who want to write the same kind of message and thought provoking for everyone who pays taxes.
    Also thanks for appearing in my video!

  11. Stephen Curry says:

     @Rebecca – you’re very welcome. Thanks for the chance to sound off in your video and well done for putting it together.

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