To make the case for cash, we must forge a consensus on how science should stimulate growth, argues Imran Khan
Scientists breathed a sigh of relief when, in the Comprehensive Spending Review announced in October 2010, research was spared deep cuts. Rumours of slashed funding were proved false, and instead science got a cash freeze - four years of "weathering the storm", in the words of the Royal Society, until the return of happier times.
But now it's 2012 and we are in a new economic reality. Both the Conservatives and Labour have made it clear that austerity will continue well past the next general election, while the spectre of the eurozone going into recession has left everyone wondering where growth will come from. Where does that leave science and engineering?
The UK's research base cannot take another round of frozen budgets: a decade of stagnant funding and we may as well "pack our bags", as the head of one research council put it to me. A renewed argument for investment is vital. To be the best place in the world for science, we must make the case for increased spending, even in tough times.
In his new year speech to the Campaign for Science and Engineering and the Policy Exchange thinktank, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, ruminated on government intervention. He recalled how in the late 1980s the decision to press ahead with the London Underground Jubilee Line extension was actually driven by the need for better transport links to Canary Wharf.
He noted that "if it had been a link to a manufacturing centre...it might have been seen as a much more controversial example of industrial policy" - particularly under Thatcher's Conservatives, as he didn't quite say. Would a scientific industrial policy today be controversial?
In the 2010 campaign to save science from cuts, world-class research and skilled graduates were cited by global businesses as reasons to invest in the UK, while analyses showed the immense economic returns on everything from cardiac research to the engineering refinements for the Thames Barrier.
The case was pretty sound - and yet it didn't quite achieve the desired effect. Inflation will erode the real value of the frozen settlement rather rapidly, and that's before we take into account the huge cuts to research capital funding.
The CSR result felt as if the coalition wanted to avoid wrecking a great but complex British institution, rather than it demonstrating firm belief in the potential of science and engineering to drive the UK's future prosperity. That needs to change - and it's our responsibility to make it happen. Whether we succeed depends on the sector forging a consensus: do we have a collective vision of science and engineering's role in the UK economy?
Thanks to our world-beating research base, the UK is well placed to benefit from an industrial agenda for science. However, none of the main political parties seems prepared to prevent a return to "business as usual" after the financial crisis.
History shows that serious public funding of research owes much to the Second World War and the Cold War. Both made it blindingly obvious to our elected leaders that science was a national priority. These days they are less convinced; their most urgent and fundamental challenge is to provide more jobs and a stronger economy. Can we articulate how science and engineering can meet that challenge?
As luck would have it, this year we have a practice run. The government is set for a multibillion-pound windfall from the auction of the 4G radio spectrum to mobile phone companies. CaSE will argue that the cash should be reinvested in science and engineering. The question is how. Do we just say the money is rightly ours, or do we spell out how it could be reinvested to help the UK achieve growth?
There are precedents for this kind of policy activism. For instance, in 1945, Vannevar Bush, director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, presented his report Science: The Endless Frontier to President Truman. It went on to underpin decades of US science policy, including the creation of the National Science Foundation. That should serve as a lesson to the British science Establishment today: if we can agree how we want the future to look, we can help to shape it.
Imran Khan is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.