The heads of the UK’s top STEM organisations today issued a joint statement to highlight the importance of engineering and the physical sciences (chemistry, physics and mathematics) to the future success of the UK.

“In these current difficult financial times, the country should be looking to aid the recovery of the economy and ensure it is both resilient and sustainable in the future. It is vitally important for the UK to continue to invest in a broad science and engineering research base, which will be a key stimulus for an upturn and an important pillar in rejuvenating the economy. A strong research base requires investment across a spectrum from basic research to its take up in industry and commerce.

To promote this, it is desirable that the research base be funded at the maximum possible level from the widest variety of sources. Promoting such diversity, for example by further encouraging engagement with industry and Government departments, is particularly important to the UK physical science disciplines. They contribute to many important areas – including medical advances – but, in contrast to some areas of biological research, lack a particularly strong charitable sector. Training the next generation of researchers and engaging the interest of young people who will be crucial to the nation’s scientific success must be core priorities.

The current governmental structures, which bring together research and higher education in one ministry, provide a real opportunity. We can build a coherent set of policies that will help to sustain the international reputation of our universities as an important element of future economic success, through teaching, researching and disseminating science and engineering. There is no shortage of excellent scientific potential – the number of applications to the Research Councils has more than doubled in the last two decades, and projects are growing in scale and ambition. These changes in the behaviour of scientists applying for funding inevitably increase pressure on budgets.

To justify this sustained investment, researchers must be ambitious in thinking about the impacts and potential impacts of their research and be prepared to communicate these clearly. Importantly, although these impacts could be economic in the narrow financial sense, they could equally well come in a multitude of other forms. These might include continuing to sustain world class research as a global magnet for talent or advancing scientific knowledge and techniques within their own or other disciplines. Thus, fundamental research with no obvious immediate application is just as important as that which has shorter term applications. Where appropriate, knowledge should of course be shared with relevant industrial sectors. Impact may also be derived from research by using it to inform policy decisions or to improve the quality of life for people living in the UK. Researchers should strive to find new ways of measuring these impacts in order to demonstrate to taxpayers the value of their publicly-funded research.

Times of economic uncertainty could potentially lead to a misguided tendency to concentrate research funding in conservative research programmes. It is crucial that this tendency be resisted, and that funding is channelled into ambitious, imaginative projects at a wide variety of scales, from individuals and small teams to large multidisciplinary collaborations. The common feature of successful funding decisions should be an aim to make significant advances in knowledge, and international scientific excellence should remain the guiding principle.

We look forward to working together for the common purpose of fostering excellence in the UK’s science and engineering base at a time when it has never been more important.”

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President, Institute of Physics
Lord John Browne, President, Royal Academy of Engineering
Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive, EPSRC
Professor David Garner, President, Royal Society of Chemistry
Lord Martin Rees, President, Royal Society
Sir David Wallace, President, Council for the Mathematical Sciences

Notes for editors

  1. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Iffat Memon at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. Direct tel +44 (0) 20 7766 0653