David Willetts Speech to the AAAS

Competition and collaboration between the UK and US drives innovation and discovery, explains David Willetts, UK science minister...
15 February 2014
Presented by Chris Smith
Production by Chris Smith.


UK Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts


Addressing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2014 meeting in Chicago, David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science, outlines how the special relationship between Britain and the US, coupled with competition and collaboration, is driving discovery and the next generation of technology...

In this episode

David Willetts, Martyn Poliakoff, Mary Bownes

00:00 - David Willetts' speech to the AAAS

UK Science Minister, David Willetts addresses the AAAS Meeting in Chicago, 2014

David Willetts' speech to the AAAS
with David Willetts, UK Science Minister

It is a great honour to be here in the company of so many distinguished scientists here today. I warmly congratulate those of you who have just been elected to this world famous academy. It is a tribute to your hard work and the greatness of American science. I also congratulate you on the efficiency of your presentation ceremony – which was rather like when Emperor Constantine baptised his troops with a hosepipe!  And I know from speaking to fellows of our Royal Society, that no matter how many other awards follow, being elected as a fellow by the most esteemed scientists in one’s own country is often the honour they cherish most – and that others most covet!  Indeed, I am accompanied on this visit by Professor Martyn Poliakoff, Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society.  Dating from 1723, this post existed before even the British Government had a Foreign Secretary!

It is also inspiring to be here in Chicago, where you have done and still do so much great science. It was here in December 1942, in a former squash court under the athletic fields of the University of Chicago, that the world’s first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place, overseen by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. The Atomic Energy Commission later said it was a gamble conducting a possibly catastrophic experiment in one of the most densely populated areas of the nation. But Fermi’s calculations were right and he joined a long list of Nobel laureates affiliated with the University of Chicago. And when I visited the Argonne Lab on Thursday I was presented with a small piece of the graphite from that original nuclear reactor – a very special gift I will treasure.

As the British Minister for Universities and Science I want to draw on my experience to compare science and innovation in the UK and the US. Of course I recognise that the sheer power and scale of America’s research and innovation effort exceeds that of any other country, including my own. Nevertheless I believe that we have some distinctive British strengths which complement your own. And I am confident that alongside the US, Britain is the best place in the world to do science. This is why it is so important that we cooperate.  And we do.  And that’s what I’m here this week to promote. 

The UK-US scientific partnership is one of the world’s strongest. Between 2008 and 2012 we published almost 90,000 co-authored UK-US publications. And crucially they had nearly twice the impact of the average paper in either of our countries. Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama have agreed that science and higher education are the foundation stones of a 21st century economy, and that the UK and U.S. have a responsibility to further their global leadership roles in these essential fields. The UK-US Joint Statement on Science, Innovation and Higher Education, signed in May 2011 during President Obama’s State Visit to the UK and refreshed during our Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in March 2012, places Science and Innovation at the heart of the bilateral relationship.  During my visit this week we have been able to take this cooperation further, especially in the area of synthetic biology where we have secured some specific agreements.  

It is not surprising that many British scientists choose to work in the US at some stage in their career. This is not – as it is sometimes portrayed – some sort of alarming brain drain. Academic exchange is something we should celebrate and promote. We know, for instance, that mobile researchers on average produce papers with a higher impact. In a globalised world it is as foolish to be parochial about research – to cling on to every clever and inspirational researcher as proof of our excellence – as it is to be insular about students who want to study abroad.  And of course this exchange of researchers goes both ways. Indeed we have the highest bilateral flow of researchers in the world between the US and the UK, with over 23,000 moves in either direction from 1996 to 2011. One of our most prominent and charismatic scientists, the Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, is a case in point. He left Britain to head up the Rockefeller University in New York – a very exciting job – and came back to be President of the Royal Society. I am confident that such exchange of people and ideas, as well as being good for the individuals involved, can only be good for our countries.  The latest exchange involves Chris Smith who has been following me around this week.  He is both a Cambridge graduate and the presenter of The Naked Scientist – a title entrepreneurially chosen to push it ups the Google search rankings!

However, as we Brits are sometimes teased for being excessively apologetic, I would like to focus on three distinctive strengths of science and research in the UK.

Our first advantage, as you might expect a Brit to say, is that history matters. Indeed the data revolution makes it even more important. I buy the argument associated with Jim Gray and Tony Hey in their book The Fourth Paradigm, that the next generation of scientific discovery will be data-driven as previously unrecognised patterns are discovered by analysing massive data sets. I don’t need to tell you about the data deluge. But if data analysis is the future then you need good quality data sets, including ones tracking back into the past. In the UK we have some of the world’s best and most complete data-sets in healthcare, demographics, agriculture and the environment.

Our long and stable history means we have reliable data stretching further back in time than just about any country. Their value is increasing with new ways to access and analyse them. Our meteorological records in central England provide a continuous temperature record since 1659. We can use weather reports in captain’s log books from centuries ago to track climate change. Indeed one of the reasons for our key role in the development of modern statistical techniques is that we had more statistics to analyse than anyone else. R A Fisher, the evolutionary biologist and founder of modern statistical theory, began his career at Rothamsted: some of the agricultural experiments at that great agricultural research centre have been running since 1850, making them the longest in the history of science.  And I look forward to getting the results soon! The Continuous Plankton Recorder has been running since 1931, making it one of the world’s longest-running marine biological monitoring programmes.  Even in the seemingly new field of space weather, the most energetic solar storm ever known was recorded by a magnetoscope at Kew in 1859. Without this long data record we would not know how violent such events could be.

Our National Health Service has a wealth of long-term clinical data linked to unique patient identifiers and well established procedures to maintain individual confidentiality.  Our Prime Minister recently set the challenge of sequencing the genomes of 100,000 NHS patients, starting with cancer and rare diseases. Linking anonymised sequence and clinical data will allow us to investigate relationships between genetics and disease and target care to individuals better.  I believe there are great potential partnership opportunities for the UK and US in this developing field of genomic medicine and in other areas of our Life Sciences Strategy.

I believe scientists across the world – but especially in the UK and US – need to work together on the shared challenge of making the best use of the massive amount of data you now have. And that means shared high standards for data curation ensuring that the data behind the papers you publish is machine readable and usable by other scientists across the world. This is a challenge we are very aware of in Britain after the excellent report by Geoffrey Boulton and the Royal Society on science as an open enterprise and which the Royal Society continues to address. It is an issue that we have focused on in the Research Data Transparency Board that I chair.  And again it is an issue that I’m keen for the US and UK to tackle. 

Let me now turn to a second distinctive strength of British science. We can be very nimble and light on our feet. After all when funding is limited, you have to be extra creative. When Ernest Rutherford’s team were trying to split the atom and funding was once more about to run out he is supposed to have called them together and said: “We’ve got no more money so now we must think.”  With budget pressures in the US     and the UK, we knew how he felt!

There is a serious point here. You beat us hands down on massively powerful computers, particle accelerators and lasers. Yet what we lack in power we can make up for in precision and ingenuity. I see this when I visit the facilities we have at Harwell near Oxford. The Diamond Light Source is not the world’s most powerful synchrotron, but it is the most precise.  The Vulcan PetaWatt laser is physically much smaller, but it competes head to head with the National Ignition Facility. Your neutron scattering facility at Oak Ridge has five times the raw accelerator power of our ISIS but we are at least as productive because we have successfully concentrated on a wide range of instrumentation and support for users.  This is true way beyond Harwell. Our computers may not be the most powerful, but we have smart software which reduces the number of calculations you need to reach any given result which helps to make them very energy efficient. For thirty years we opted out of space launch technology so have to cadge a lift off someone else to get our satellites into orbit. Indeed you previously helped us launch one and then six months later destroyed it – it’s no coincidence that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was written by a Brit!  You can find yourself paying hundreds of millions of dollars to launch a big satellite. That gave us a real incentive to make smart, lightweight small satellites. We now produce 40 per cent of the world’s small satellites, with Surrey Satellites the market leader. 

Being light on our feet means using our modest resources with maximum efficiency. With just over 3 per cent of the world’s spending on research and development, we produce over 6 per cent of the world’s publications and 16 per cent of the world’s most highly cited papers. We produce 3.7 publications per million dollars spent, compared to 1.4 in the US. So UK science is the most productive in the G8.
Our third advantage is an extraordinary combination of breadth and geographical concentration. We have excellent research teams in over 400 distinctive areas. No other comparable economy has anything like this range of world-class disciplines – including of course the social sciences and humanities. This breadth matters because none of the major challenges facing the world today – climate change, neuro-degenerative disease, energy security – can be tackled by one discipline alone. So this breadth matters. All this is all happening not across a Continent but on one small island. Indeed the curve linking Oxford, Imperial, UCL and Cambridge is only about 100 miles across. Our other great clusters – around Manchester for example, or linking Edinburgh (represented here by Mary Bownes – I’m delighted that she joined my delegation) and Glasgow, or Birmingham, Warwick and Nottingham are even tighter. In these clusters we really are breaking down barriers between academia, industry and Government. That makes us exceptionally well connected.

History, creativity and geography are three important advantages. But of course there are also lessons that the UK can learn from you. And one of the main lessons I take from the US may seem paradoxical. It is the evidence of the crucial role that public agencies and funding can play in technological and scientific advance. You have a lot of public support for risk takers and for innovation. What Fred Block calls America’s “hidden developmental state” is easy to underestimate because it is divided between several different agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Health and support from individual states as well. The algorithm that turned Google into such a colossal success was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Back in the 1950s the Cold War and the space race meant the Department of Defense was pushing for ever-faster integrated circuits and greater computing capacity. This led to funding for firms like Intel – and the Silicon Valley was born. Later federal funding for research into computer networking at Stanford was instrumental to the development of the networking technologies that eventually became Cisco.  This powerful creative role for Government agencies can be seen beyond the IT and defence industries. President Reagan’s Orphan Drugs Act of 1983 also marked a major step change for new pharmaceuticals.

This role of public agencies is often hidden behind a rhetoric which attributes all these gains to sturdy individualists acting on their own. The role of the Federal government in driving scientific and technological advance is what of course the great Alexander Hamilton, your first Treasury Secretary, called for in his Federalist Papers. It is very different from Thomas Jefferson’s picture of sturdy independent farmers. Indeed that is why America has been neatly described as a Hamiltonian state hidden behind Jeffersonian rhetoric.

There is a common thread here. It is the role of government and its agencies in bearing some of the risks of innovation. Sometimes in the UK we beat up on ourselves and say that we do not have the culture of risk-taking that you have here in the US. But this is not some inherent weakness of the British. The real problem, I have concluded, is that we were often expecting companies to step in earlier and take on more risk than in the US. This is why our Technology Strategy Board is so important – it takes some of the closer to market risks which in the US are borne by DARPA or the National Institute of Health. Indeed, I am pleased to say that we are developing the kind of approach to supporting innovation that has been so successful in the US. We have brought in Catalyst funds which finance innovation all the way from the research lab to the market. Our seven new catapult centres are shared R&D facilities co-funded by government and business.

So the US Government has not been afraid to back technology. And neither are we. We have identified eight great technologies where we can have a lead alongside the US. Let me end by briefly listing what I have called the eight great technologies.

1. The data deluge will transform scientific enquiry and many industries too. The UK can be in the vanguard of the big data revolution and energy-efficient computing.

2. There is a surge in data coming from satellites which do not just transmit data but collect data by earth observation. We have opportunities to be a world leader in satellites and especially analysing the data from them.

3. There are particular challenges in collecting data from a range of sources in designing robots and other autonomous systems. We can already see that this is a general purpose technology with applications ranging from assisted living for disabled people through to nuclear decommissioning. It is said that future controls will be manned by one man and his dog. The man will feed the dog and the dog will bite the man if he tries to touch the controls.  

4. Modern genetics has emerged in parallel with the IT revolution and there is a direct link – genetic data comes in digital form. The future is the convergence of “dry” IT and “wet” biological sciences. One of the most ambitious examples of this is synthetic biology – the design and engineering of biological parts and systems to heal us, feed us, and fuel us.  Last year we celebrated the anniversary of Watson and Crick’s great discovery – first announced in a Cambridge pub. Many people walk into Cambridge pubs and declare they’ve discovered the meaning of life – but this time it was true!

5. Regenerative medicine will open up new medical techniques for repairing and replacing damaged human tissue.

6. Advances in agricultural technologies can put the UK at the forefront of the next green revolution.

7. Designing new advanced materials from first principles.

8. One of the most important applications of advanced materials is in energy storage. This and other technologies will enable the UK to gain from the global transition to new energy sources.  It was exciting to go to Argonne and see how they are tackling the challenge of designing a more efficient battery. 

Today I have outlined the distinctive assets Britain has when it comes to science. These assets mean that we complement our friends in America rather well. We are each other’s closest partner in scientific research as well of course as in security – indeed these two links at the heart of the special relationship both trace their origins back to those massive wartime scientific collaborations like the Manhattan Project, which had some of its roots in Chicago of course.

It is indeed a special relationship – a combination of competition and cooperation – especially in some of these secret or recherché areas of science, you need a trusted comparator who does things differently but with whom you can compare notes. RAF Fylingdales in Yorkshire contributes to the US led work in tracking space debris using UK designed algorithms. AWE Aldermaston have extremely sophisticated programs for modeling nuclear reactions that complemented modeling done in the US. Livermore Labs, which I visited last year, is another example. 

In the UK we are naturally always keen to check on how we measure up to the US in the Nobel Prizes league, and we do very respectably. But an interesting aspect of the Nobel story is what our two nations share. Over the last 12 years there have been four Nobel Laureates that both the US and UK claim as nationals, including Professor Michael Levitt whom I met at the Nobel Ceremony in Stockholm last December. He studied physics at Kings College in London - as did his fellow Nobel prize winner Peter Higgs. He generously says some of the work for which he won the Nobel Prize Chemistry was done at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Now he is doing great things in Stanford.

This is just one example of the ties that bind our two great nations. Our relationship is a combination of competition and collaboration that keeps both our countries at the forefront of the world for science. I look forward to today’s new fellows forming new ties with our scientists in the UK and across the world.  Many congratulations to the new fellows and thank you for the opportunity to address you today. 

Rt Hon David Willetts MP


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