Monthly Archives: December 2009

Clive Cookson

A mixed bag of measures for science and innovation from today’s pre-Budget report.

The chancellor introduced two initiatives to support innovation and science-based industry: a reduced rate of corporation tax for income derived from UK patents, and an extra £200m for the government’s Strategic Investment Fund.

But there is also the overhanging threat of £600m savings – in other words cuts – in higher education and science spending.

As Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, put it: “The chancellor has sent mixed signals about the future of science and innovation in the UK. He is looking for a significant cut in investment in the nation’s research and skills base, whilst providing support for innovation that stems from it.”

On the plus side, the so-called Patent Box will introduce a 10 per cent corporation tax rate from April 2013 on UK patent income “to strengthen the incentives to invest in innovative industries”. It will apply to patents granted after the implementing legislation is passed in 2011.

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, which will eventually be the biggest beneficiaries of the Patent Box, welcomed the prospect.

Clive Dix, chairman of the BioIndustry Association, said: “The government has recognised that life sciences are essential to building Britain’s future, and the Patent Box shows that it is listening to the BIA and others in the UK life sciences sector.”

In the long run the Patent Box is likely become a valuable incentive for life sciences companies to locate in the UK, worth an estimated £1.3bn a year. But tax accountants point out that it will take several years for the benefits to appear, given than time-scale of pharmaceutical research and development.

”The implementation date of 2013 is unlikely to benefit companies until 2020 at the earliest,” said Andrew Packman of PwC. “We would support an earlier implementation date or the inclusion of existing patents.”

The £750m Strategic Investment Fund was set up in this year’s Budget to support advanced industrial projects. On Wednesday, Mr Darling added a further £200m to the fund – of which £150m will be devoted to low-carbon projects.

Although £600m savings are to come out of the higher education and science and research budgets, the report does not specify where any cuts will fall.

“The government cannot afford to undermine the research base if it is going to achieve its goal of a more balanced economy,” said Dusic.

Clive Cookson

Sad news in the Guardian of an impending crisis at London’s venerable Royal Institution.

Apparently the RI, which has been promoting science and carrying out research for more than 200 years at its splendid Mayfair headquarters, is gripped by internal dissent.

According to the Guardian, a review has concluded that the RI needs to save money as a result of the financial downturn – and this could force the departure of Susan Greenfield as director, unless she is willing to stay on in a reduced, possibly part-time role.

Greenfield, who is also a professor of neuropharmacology at Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords, has been a controversial figure during her 11 years as the head of the RI.

She has some powerful detractors in the world of science – and they are not all driven by sexism or jealousy, as Greenfield’s supporters sometimes imply.

Personally I admire her greatly, for the imaginative way she has overhauled the institution, raised its profile, undertaken a much-needed refurbishment and set up the extremely successfully Science Media Centre as an arm’s-length operation under the RI’s wing.

And here I must declare a (non-financial) interest, as a member of the Science Media Centre’s advisory board. But I have no inside knowledge of the RI row.

There is no doubt, however, that Greenfield at her best is an inspiring, articulate voice for science. We need more colourful figures like her, and I wish Susan – and the Royal Institution – well.

Clive Cookson

While the worlds of science and the environment concentrate on Copenhagen, it is good to see that the climate change negotiations are not the only focus of attention.

I receive an angry press release from Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, entitled “Salter Takes Aim at the Beaver”.

Salter, Labour’s Parliamentary Angling spokesman, is furious with Natural England about the public conservation body’s “ludicrous” plans to re-introduce the European beaver, once a common animal in the British countryside but driven to extinction about 400 years ago.

On reading Natural England’s press release cited by Salter, I find that he has misrepresented its position. It is not actually planning to release the rodents but has sensibly carried out a feasibility study, in conjunction with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, to prepare for the growing likelihood that someone will apply soon for a licence to reintroduce beavers. A limited release programme is already under way in Scotland.

The MP fulminates against Natural England’s statements that beavers can contribute positively to river and wetland management, including floodplain restoration.

“These must be two of the most absurd statements uttered by a publicly funded body in recent years,” he says. “Quite clearly Natural England envisages an army of highly literate beavers in council uniforms carefully consulting maps of flood risk sites before deciding which trees to chop down and where to build their dams ! In reality, these are four stone giant rodents with a genetic programme set to cause deforestation and flooding”

Salter also claims that beaver dams will prevent migratory fish running the rivers. So how does he think the fish managed to reach their spawning grounds in pre-industrial England before beavers were wiped out? A beaver dam is not a serious obstacle to a determined salmon or sea trout.

“If we really have to introduce endangered species, why do we not take the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the wolf and bring them back to Britain?” asks Salter ironically. Well, in fact there are plans to re-introduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands.

Wild boar have already re-introduced themselves in several parts of rural England – probably irrevocably. And personally I’d welcome back beavers, bears, wolves and lynx.

But I realise that in some quarters that view is as unwelcome as a climate sceptic at a Greenpeace meeting.

Clive Cookson

The University of East Anglia has found an appropriate chairman for the independent review into leaked emails from its Climatic Research Unit, which sceptics say show unacceptable manipulation and suppression of data that do not support the cause of manmade global warming.

Sir Muir Russell has a distinguished background as a Scottish civil servant, including acting as the first Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive following devolution in 1999. He retired this year as principal and vice-chancellor of Glasgow University.

Russell (left) has no known links with climate change research and should be acceptable to both sides of the increasingly polarised debate over global warming.

The terms of reference for the inquiry seem to cover the main allegations of misconduct made by sceptics, including data manipulation/suppression and failure to comply with Freedom of Information requests. Russell will be free to amend the university’s terms of reference and devise his own working methods to investigate fully any alleged misconduct by CRU academics.

UEA wants Russell to complete his work by the spring. That will leave several months in which sceptics will be able to make hay with the allegations.

We had an example today when Saudi Arabia’s chief climate negotiator, Mohammad Al-Sabban told BBC News that the CRU email issue would have a “huge impact” on next week’s UN climate summit.

“It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change,” said Al-Sabban – who obviously has a vested interest in arguing that the vast volumes of oil pumped from beneath the Saudi sands are not contributing to global warming.

Meanwhile the CRU keeps the flag flying on an emergency website that promises: “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.” Its home page defiantly displays a graph of global temperatures over the past 150 years, which climate scientists believe shows the impact of manmade warming.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.