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Britain is good at science, but poor at turning technology into industry

My Times column is on the relationshio between science and technology, especially in the UK:

The chancellor, George Osborne, made a speech on science in Cambridge last week in which he contrasted Britain’s “extraordinary” scientific achievements with “our historic weakness when it comes to translating those scientific achievements into commercial gain”. It’s a recurring complaint in British science policy that we discover things, then others make money out of them.

Britain’s astonishing ability to gather scientific firsts — we are second only to the US in Nobel prizes — shows no sign of abating. We have won 88 scientific Nobel prizes, 115 if you add economics, literature and peace. This includes 12 in the past ten years and at least one in each of the past five years. But we filed fewer patents last year than the US, Japan, Germany, France, China or South Korea, and we have seen many British discoveries commercialised by others: graphene, DNA sequencing, the worldwide web, to name a few. So yes, we are good at science but bad at founding new industries.

The government’s response to this is to encourage clusters of high-tech companies, such as the one around Cambridge, with its 1,500 technology-based firms, and to support technology “catapults” to help infant industries to get going in eight technologies in which Britain has a potential lead. An example is the manufacturing centre in Coventry with its 3D printing expertise.

Most of the firms in the Cambridge cluster moved there to get close to the university; they did not spin out of the university. Technology tends to come from technology, and to use science to help the process along, rather than to be born of science. The idea that innovation happens because you put science in one end of the pipe and technology comes out the other end goes back to Francis Bacon, and it is largely wrong. History shows that (public) science is the daughter of (private) technology at least much as it is the mother. Good universities recognise this and adjust their research programmes to what interests industry.

The steam engine led to the insights of thermodynamics, not vice versa. The dye industry drove chemistry. The centrifuge and X-ray crystallography, developed for the textile industry, led to the structure of DNA. DNA sequencing (a British technology) led to genomics (an international science). The development of mobile telephones, horizontal drilling for oil, and search engines owed almost nothing to university research. Sure, the firms that made these breakthroughs later went to universities in search of educated staff, and to help to solve problems through contracted research. But the breakthroughs owed less to the philosophical ruminations of scientists than to the tinkering of engineers.

Twenty years ago the economist Partha Dasgupta pointed out that the “republic of science”, with its insistence that results must be shared and that rewards come in the form of prizes and prestige, was very different from the privatised world of technology, where patents and profits were what mattered. In a paper with Paul David, he said: “Modern societies need to have both communities firmly in place and attend to maintaining a synergistic equilibrium between them.”

So perhaps the British problem is that we are good at the public bit, but not the private bit. Being good at science, we share our results with the world, rather than benefiting from them ourselves. It is not quite that simple. Terence Kealey, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, one of the foremost authorities on the economics of science, has made a strong case — recently buttressed with that badge of economic respectability, a mathematical model — that science is not a pure “public good”, like light from a lighthouse.

Although knowledge is shared among scientists, it is still not automatically accessible to “any passer-by or person of average curiosity”, say Professor Kealey and his co-author, Martin Ricketts. To join the conversation you need the tacit knowledge that comes from training in the particular field of science itself. And that’s why private firms are keen to cluster round Cambridge, to get the expertise and contacts, and to eavesdrop on the scientific chat in the university as well as in each other’s coffee rooms.

The mathematical model shows that there is a “pinch point” in research, where researchers need encouragement to start sharing knowledge with each other. There are lots of examples of government giving that encouragement and doing it well. So Professor Kealey says that inasmuch as Mr Osborne is creating new institutions of knowledge sharing and trust between previously separate entities (particular universities and industry), he is doing something that both theory and history show can be of benefit: it is one area where government action can be shown to have been a good thing.

Incidentally, history provides little support for the commonly held view that munificent funding of science by government results in faster economic growth. In the late 19th and early 20th century, France and Germany provided much public funding to science while Britain and America did not. The anglophone countries grew faster. And for every example of an unexpected spin-off from public funding of science — the worldwide web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee so that physicists could share their results — there are plenty of cases of private funding having public effects. Sputnik, the pioneering Russian space probe, relied extensively on prewar research privately funded by Robert Goddard, supported by the Guggenheims.

In 2003 the OECD published a paper on “sources of growth in OECD countries” between 1971 and 1998, finding to its explicit surprise that, whereas privately funded research and development stimulated economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact whatsoever. It is possible that government spending on the wrong kind of science stops people working on the right kind of science as far as economic growth is concerned — too many esoteric projects of no interest to nearby industries.

Not that this means the public funding of science should cease. Given that the government takes close to half of GDP and spends it on many things, it would be a shame if none of that money found its way back to science, one of the great triumphs of our culture. The American physicist Robert Wilson, when asked in a congressional hearing during the cold war how a particle accelerator would contribute to national defence, replied that it had “nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending”.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times