A Fool & His Money Are Soon Parted

It’s nice to see the UK Department of Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS) lobbying for a billion pounds to be spent on scientific research, but it’s worrying that, as with most of these ‘stimulus’ packages, little time has been spent figuring out what really needs to be done and the majority of the package is focussed on quick wins and headline grabbing – or as the BBC puts it “funding bodies have been asked for a “shopping list” of ideas that would strengthen British science and boost the economy quickly.

Now boosting the economy quickly through spending an extra billion pounds on science simply isn’t going to happen – at least not in time for the next election in mid 2010, and as I mentioned a couple of years ago:

The timetables of science (which operates in a framework of decades or longer) are completely out of sync with the timetables of public policy (which operates in a framework of months and years)

Despite this, according to the BBC “many research leaders are determined to ensure highly trained scientists and engineers don’t get lost during the downturn.” Get lost? Where are they going to go, investment banks, hedge funds, venture capital or simply sublime? Who in their right mind would give up a nice secure government funded science post at the moment? Losing scientists to other industries is the least of the problems.

Showing how out of touch policy is with the real world, the BBC also reports that DIUS “is also considering proposals to create two funds to encourage venture capitalists to invest in small high-tech companies by matching their investment with public funding.” I hope that they give up this idea pretty quickly, or at least only open it to VCs who have shown a decent return over the last ten years. Compounding one problem with another is hardly a solution.

Yes, a billion pounds invested in UK science would make a difference, but its not the kind of quick fix that politicians are looking for, and unless it is a well thought out strategy, and one that connects to the overall economic stimulus plan then it will be more yet money swirling down the drain.

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