Our daily lives, at home, at work and in the marketplace, have changed
hugely over the last 50 years. Human life-spans have increased, for
instance, from a global life expectancy at birth of 46 years half a
century ago, to 64 years today, and world food production has doubled over
the past 35 years, on only 10 per cent more land.
The dominant driver for such changes has been new knowledge, and its
translation into new ways of doing things. So how can we improve this
process of innovation and therefore more deliberately choose what kind of
tomorrow we want to create, with the possibilities that science offers,
rather than just letting things happen?
The interaction between new knowledge and new products is complex and
often far from straightforward. But the UK Government's White Paper on ‘Excellence
and Opportunity: a Science and Innovation Policy for the 21st Century’,
published two years ago, provides some useful pointers. It suggests that
"to be a successful nation we must make sure our science base is
strong and excellent, that we have the facility to quickly transform the
fruits of scientific research and invention into products and services
that people need to improve their well-being and quality of life, and we
must do all this in a way that has public support and involvement".
As the White Paper acknowledges, public funding is crucial. I believe
governments invest in basic science for three main reasons. First, to gain
new knowledge thus created. Although this knowledge is a classic ‘public
good’, the producing country or organisation does usually enjoy
potential advantages in acquiring it first, as economic studies have
shown. Second, to buy a ticket into the wider club of knowledge-producers.
Third, and most important, such investment produces successive cadres of
trained young people, some of whom are cycled back into the
knowledge-producing process, while others carry its fruits out into
business, industry, the City, public service, and elsewhere.
With this investment, academic and other institutions then need to
manage research in basic science in a way that stimulates creativity and
obtains the best value for their money. The most important thing is to
create institutional cultures in which the best young people are free to
express their creativity and set their own agendas, rather than being
entrained in hierarchies of deference to their seniors, no matter how
distinguished these may be. Such cultures are most easily maintained on
university campuses, thoroughly infested as they are with the irreverent
But realising the potential of this basic research is not easy. It is
sometimes suggested that innovation flows from publicly-funded basic
research to product-developing and privately-funded industry. However, the
networks and links which bring public and private, researchers and
industries, together are complex and subject to a variety of market
failures. As the UK White Paper recognises, government "cannot and
should not attempt to manage these networks but it can play a critical
role in facilitating their creation".
One such initiative to foster these links is the UK Foresight
Programme, bringing together academia and business to consider likely
future developments. This exercise can help academics see new and
interesting problems in industry, and industrialists realise the resources
that academic researchers can offer. Over the past decade, since Foresight
was launched, the practical links between universities and industry have
doubled in the UK.
Investing in basic science and seizing opportunities to innovate is not
enough to guarantee a better world. We increasingly recognise the
unintended adverse consequences of our well-intentioned actions, such as
ever expanding human populations, agricultural intensification resulting
in decreasing biological diversity, and global climate change produced by
These worries have been partly responsible for creating a crisis in
public trust, which is one of the greatest challenges facing scientific
policymakers today. The UK Government has responded by implementing ‘Guidelines
for Scientific Advice and Policy Making’. Their central principle is
openness and transparency, engaging dissident voices in debates, while
striving to manage risks in a proportionate manner, subject to
So, to secure public confidence, the professional activities of
scientists and engineers, and more importantly, undergraduate and
postgraduate curricula, must reflect the need to engage not only with
technical issues, but also with ethical questions and public concerns.
However good our innovative ideas and delivery may be, they will have
difficulty in being realised if general public assent is not secured
through thoughtful and open discussion.
This article is based on Lord May's keynote address
to the 2002 Symposium of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences
and Engineering "Owning Innovation – From Idea to Delivery" on
18 November. First published in The
Canberra Times on November 27, 2002.