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Science and Technology in Britain

Britain's long record of achievement in science, engineering and technology has continued throughout the 20th century. Nobel Prizes for science have been won by over 70 British citizens, more than any other country except the United States.




In the last 30 years major contributions have been made by British scientists working in universities, research institutes and industry. These have included theories on black holes and the origins of the universe; the identification of genes linked to cystic fibrosis and other diseases; the development of monoclonal antibodies and scanning techniques for medical diagnosis; the invention of DNA fingerprinting - a forensic technique which can identify an individual from a small tissue sample; and the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic.

Total expenditure on scientific research and development (R & D) in 1997 was £14,700 million, 1.8 per cent of GDP. About 49 per cent of funding was provided by industry and 32 per cent by the Government; a further 15 per cent came from overseas. Major contributions were also made by private endowments, trusts and charities. Contract research organisations carry out research and development for companies, and play an increasingly important role in the transfer of technology to industry.

 

INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT

Total spending in Britain on R & D in industry in 1997 was nearly £9,600 million: industry contributed 71 per cent, Government 10 per cent, and overseas sources the remainder. Chemicals, pharmaceuticals and health care account for almost a third of R & D spending by listed British companies. The three biggest investors in R & D - Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham and AstraZeneca - are all in the pharmaceuticals sector. British firms have been responsible for discovering and developing many best-selling drugs.


Other areas of R & D strength include electronics and aerospace. Pioneering achievements in aerospace include advanced radar and aircraft control systems, automatic landing, flight simulators and ejection seats.

 

GOVERNMENT ROLE

Science and technology issues are the responsibility of a Cabinet Minister, supported by the Office of Science and Technology (OST), within the Department of Trade and Industry. The OST is headed by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser and has specific responsibility for the Science Budget and the seven government-financed Research Councils. Government finance for R & D goes to research establishments, higher education institutions and private industry, as well as collaborative research programmes. In 1999-2000 net Government R & D spending is £7,100 million, of which £4,100 million is being devoted to civil science. Government funding through the Science Budget - which amounts to £1,500 million in 1999-2000 - goes mainly to the Research Councils.


The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has the largest R & D budget of the Research Councils. Among government departments the Ministry of Defence has the largest budget, although with the end of the Cold War defence R & D spending is gradually declining. The main civil departments involved in scientific R & D are the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

 

STRATEGY

In recent years funding and organisation of science, engineering and technology have changed considerably in accordance with the Government White Paper Realising Our Potential, published in 1993. This was the first major review of science for over 20 years and aimed to create a closer partnership between Government, industry and the scientific community in developing strengths in areas of importance to the future economic well-being of Britain. It established the Foresight Programme for the public and private sectors to work together to identify opportunities in R & D projects in markets and technologies likely to emerge over the next 10 to 20 years. Government departments, universities and higher education funding councils, as well as the Research Councils, are reflecting Foresight priorities in their research spending allocations.


The LINK scheme provides a government-wide framework for collaborative research in support of wealth creation and improvement of the quality of life. Under this, government departments and Research Councils fund up to 50 per cent of the cost of projects, with industry providing the balance. So far, over 1,000 projects worth more than £500 million have been started, involving over 1,500 companies.


The Government seeks to increase the public awareness of science, engineering and technology and supports a number of programmes and events, including the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology and the annual science festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

 

RESEARCH IN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS

Universities carry out most of Britain's long-term strategic and basic research in science and technology. The main general funds to support higher education institutions is provided by the higher education funding councils in England, Scotland and Wales. The Research Councils support R & D through grants and contracts, and also by providing grants to about 15,000 postgraduate students in science, social sciences, engineering and technology. Science parks - of which there are 55 -are partnerships between higher education or research centres and industry to promote commercially focused research and advanced technology. They are host to over 1,400 companies.

 

PROFESSIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND LEARNED SOCIETIES

Numerous technical institutions, professional associations and learned societies play an important role in advancing science and technology through meetings, publications and sponsorship. The Engineering Council promotes the study of all types of engineering in schools and other organisations, in co-operation with its 120 industry affiliates. The Royal Society, founded in 1660, is Britain's national academy of sciences. It encourages scientific research and its application, provides research fellowships and grants, and fosters public understanding of science. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, contains one of the largest collections of living and dried plants in the world and conducts research in all aspects of plant life. It takes part in joint research programmes in some 50 countries.

 

INTERNATIONAL COLLABORATION

Britain has a key role in many international scientific facilities and research programmes such as the European Union's R & D framework programmes. The Fifth Framework Programme will run from 1999 to 2002. It will support research to tackle pressing European problems, such as land transport, marine technology and the 'city of tomorrow'. Over 800 British organisations have taken part in EUREKA, an industry-led scheme to encourage European co-operation in developing and producing advanced technology products and processes.


Other examples of international collaboration include CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics), based in Geneva; and the European Space Agency (ESA). Britain has a world-class reputation for its space science and has taken part in all of ESA's science missions. Around half of Britain's space programme is concerned with satellite-based Earth observation (remote-sensing) for commercial and environmental applications.

Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office


Produced in Poland by British Council 2003. The United Kingdom's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We are registered in England as a charity.