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How the UK can stay at the forefront of science and technology

Professor Venki Ramakrishnan came to the UK 18 years ago to pursue his research at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Elected a Fellow of Trinity in 2008, he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribosomes, and was knighted in 2012. In 2015 he was elected President of the Royal Society. Here he charts a path for the UK to retain its leading role in science and technology. 

We live in challenging times as a result of changed political circumstances both here and in the USA. Many pundits have suggested that these changes are not new – pointing for example to aftermath of the economic crash of 1929 – and represent a retreat into nationalism and protectionism as a result of inequalities brought about by globalization. Today, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, globalization is on the retreat again, with increased calls for restrictions to mobility and trade, and a rise in nationalism.

There is considerable debate about the way forward for the UK after Brexit. A chief reason for Brexit was the feeling of many that they did not share in the economic prosperity of globalization and membership of the EU. Rather they faced stagnating wages and increased pressure on resources, infrastructure and costs. Virtually all economists from the left and right agree that addressing those concerns by retreating into protectionism would simply repeat the mistakes of the past and cause all of us to be worse off.

Fortunately, the UK continues to believe in free trade. However, if we have free trade and also restrict mobility, and at the same time want to ensure people a decent minimum wage and standard of living, we will not be able to compete purely based on traditional industry. The older industries, both in the UK and the US were based on proximity to raw materials and what at the time was world-leading innovative technology.  Many of these industries are not particularly competitive today in a global economy. It is doubtful that steel mills and coal will return on a large scale to either Pennsylvania or the North of England. Even if they were to do so, automation and other efficiencies will ensure that they would not create the large number of well-paying jobs of the past. Globalization is sometimes a proxy for the disruption caused by technology, which can stimulate economic growth while rewarding fewer and fewer members of society.

Indeed, regardless of the cause, there has been a ‘great decoupling’ of median income from productivity or GDP per capita. The former has stagnated since the 1980s while the latter has continued to grow. All technological revolutions result in disruption – in the past, new technologies have eventually created more new jobs with greater overall benefits for all. Given the pace of disruption and the sustained stagnation over several decades in median income, the consequences this time are as yet unclear.

Economic growth will thus depend on science and innovation, but left to itself, such new growth will be unevenly distributed. In the US, much of the innovation and the resulting economic growth has occurred in the North-East Washington-Boston corridor or on the West Coast. This has left the vast hinterland of the US behind, so the result of the US election is not surprising in hindsight. In the UK, much of the new economy is concentrated in areas like London and Cambridge. Newer, knowledge-based industry relies on easy and rapid acquisition of information to have a competitive advantage. In a laissez-faire environment, the growth of these clusters will continue at the expense of other areas, and is a natural consequence of economics.

A key aspect of this is the so-called agglomeration effect. Small and large companies want to be in an environment where there is complementary expertise and industry all around them. There is a reason that AstraZeneca moved its research headquarters from the North of England. The three places on their short list were the Bay Area and Boston in the USA, and Cambridge in the UK. Fortunately for the UK, they chose Cambridge. The move to Cambridge would not make sense on the basis of cost alone: housing costs for their employees, as well as running costs, are much higher in Cambridge. However, the life sciences cluster in and around the city means that AstraZeneca is  plugged into first-rate research and innovation, able to recruit skilled employees and benefit from a ‘first mover’s advantage.’ A similar effect has led to the growth of cities all over the world – indeed many of the clusters I have mentioned are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

Given the geographical inequalities it generates, a laissez-faire approach to future growth is not sustainable politically. How then should a strategy ensure that different parts of the country are not left behind? It would be a mistake to artificially prop up designated parts of the country with targeted investments that may simply favour existing industries in decline.

Some cities have reversed decline by investing in completely new areas. For example, Pittsburgh, in decline due to the loss of its steel industry, is rejuvenating through investment in new technologies, facilitated by its universities, including Carnegie-Mellon, a world leader in computer science and robotics. Identifying how to reverse economic decline in a particular area is not easy. But that is not an argument for inaction, particularly in a post-Brexit world, which is more, not less, challenging for the UK.

The UK Government has launched a new industrial strategy to reinvigorate economic growth in the UK and to ensure its equitable distribution. The Royal Society and other academies have argued that science and innovation must be an essential component of such a strategy. The Government’s recent announcement of significantly increased funding for research is a sign that our arguments have been found convincing. It sends a strong message that post-Brexit the UK is committed to being a leader in science and innovation.

The announcement of increased spending on infrastructure is also welcome. Careful thought must be paid to nurturing potential areas where the UK has particular strengths. Targeted investment to kickstart a new sector may be required if the UK wants a place at the global table. Rather than picking winning companies, competition can be preserved by support for a range of companies, either through competitive project support, or competitive procurement from the Ministry of Defence or the National Health Service.

For the benefits of economic growth to be widely dispersed geographically infrastructure investment should aim to reduce the isolation and improve the connectivity of the entire country. High speed connectivity – both virtual through the internet and real through transport – will ensure that those places currently left behind will quickly connect to high-growth areas nearby. The UK has large centres that are, or could be, the nucleus for future growth.

For example, if connected to each other and surrounding areas, the Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds area, with several leading universities, could be an engine of growth not only for those cities, but also for Grimsby and Hull. Similarly, large parts of East Anglia could be connected to Norwich and Cambridge. High-speed links – both physical and virtual – will ensure that residents will be able to live where they want to and work where jobs are being created. Importantly, increased connectivity will fuel the development of local industries as part of an expanding cluster.

The skills shortage

Growth requires large pools of skilled workers. Given the debate over immigration, it is essential to create a sufficiently large and skilled local workforce, which will require a substantial and sustained investment in education over considerable time. All governments have paid lip service to education but with today’s rapidly changing and often disruptive economies, we need education that is flexible and broad based. The Royal Society has advocated a broad-based curriculum and science and mathematics education throughout secondary school in order to prepare future generations for the knowledge-based economy.

Response to Brexit

These challenges are made more complicated, not less, by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. One of my predecessors at the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees, who was Master of Trinity College, recalls that as a young scientist, it was the norm to go to the US for further training, but today scientists were just as likely (or more likely) to go to other European countries. That is due to the recovery and growth of European science after the devastation of two world wars, and the greater integration of European science fostered by the EU. The latter is at risk as a result of Brexit and comprises three strands: mobility, funding and regulations.

Mobility and the global nature of science

Regardless of the availability of local talent, science is always a global enterprise and depends on a free flow of people, who bring in new ideas and expertise. The UK’s young scientists benefit enormously by going abroad for training, so migration works both ways. Many of our top native-born scientists have studied or done research in other countries. Indeed, a major reason for the success of UK science and technology is that it has been open and welcoming to the best talent from around the world. Five of the last 15 UK Nobel Laureates were foreign born, three of the last five Presidents of the Royal Society were born abroad, and a sixth was the son of immigrants.

Today, 30% of UK academic research staff come from other countries and a third of UK start-ups were founded by non-UK nationals. We are second only to the US as a destination for global talent. Their presence ensures that we remain first rate, and importantly, produces an excellent environment for training home-grown talent. Losing EU nationals would be a disaster for the UK economy. We need to take immediate steps to reassure them that they remain welcome. Currently, an EU citizen working in the UK must complete a 90-page form with lots of onerous and unnecessary reporting to gain the right to remain. In the future, the government should streamline procedures so they are fair, transparent and efficient for everyone

Immigration is a very political issue but the most strident voices may not accurately reflect public opinion. It is worth remembering that immigration was the second most important reason why people voted for Brexit – and it was control over migration that people wanted, not an end to it. A majority of the British, including leading Brexiteers, are not against movement of highly skilled labour into the country. In the aftermath of the referendum a poll showed that 84% of people want EU citizens currently in the UK to be able to stay and only 12% want to cut the number of highly skilled workers migrating to Britain. Thus, the recent rhetoric around migration has been both unhelpful and unnecessary and the Government needs to send a strong message to counter that. Reducing the barriers to mobility will enhance our competitiveness and emphasize that the UK will always welcome talent from around the world.

Counting students as migrants is both unreasonable and a poor strategy. Only a small fraction of them stay on after their studies (mostly to our benefit) and they could be counted at that time. The rest return home and are valuable links with the UK. As future leaders they are more likely to look at the UK as natural partners for trade and investment. By creating unnecessary barriers to students, and restricting their opportunities, we are in danger of turning away entire generations of future partners who would be well disposed towards us.


The UK research and innovation system currently receives funding from the EU in excess of our contribution. In 2014-15 EU research funding represented 15 per cent of the research funding in UK universities and accounted for 2.5 per cent of total sector income. Twenty-two per cent of European Research Council (ERC) funding came to the UK in that year. UK small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) have collectively drawn down more funding than their counterparts in other member states, and UK industry is consistently and successfully engaged across all relevant areas of the programme. However, withdrawal from EU programmes is not only about funding.

Over the years, the UK has built up strong networks with other EU countries, networks that greatly expand the influence of our science and the UK as a whole. It allows our scientists to have a say in the planning and operation of large multinational facilities and in the future directions of science in Europe. Most members of the Royal Society strongly support continued links through participation in programmes such as Horizon 2020 (including the ERC).

Through the Royal Society’s working group set up to examine the various consequences of Brexit for science and appropriate responses to them, we have met with senior government officials and Ministers to make clear what the science community feels is in the best interests of both science and the country. The decisions by the Government to underwrite UK applicants to EU programmes in the transition period, as well as to increase investment in science, are both outcomes we actively argued for and have been welcomed by the community. However, they would not compensate for the loss of EU funding and in the long run, if the UK wishes to maintain its leading role in science, we need to move at least towards the OECD average for investment in research and preferably towards those of our closest competitors, such as the US and Germany, which invest more.


The UK has benefited from a common regulatory policy within the EU, which is useful for collaborations across the continent, e.g. involving animal research, genetics, etc. At the same time, the UK has excelled in enlightened regulatory policy for new technologies that considers both risks and benefits. For example, long before it was acceptable in most countries, the UK pioneered IVF babies. Recently, approval was given for the so-called ‘three-donor’ baby in order to eliminate mitochondrial defects. We were also more rational about stem cell research when the climate in the US was unfavourable. Currently, the UK is more forward-looking about areas like genome editing.

Potentially, the UK has great advantages in new areas where regulations, ethics, liability and technology intersect, for example in the use of large sets of personal data to drive discovery and innovation in health. Proper regulations and the UK’s experience in setting standards could also help areas such as driverless vehicles and robotics. Currently, the Royal Society is examining three related areas with regulatory implications: cybersecurity, machine learning and data governance. On the last, the Society is collaborating with the British Academy to propose a governance framework that will help ensure the UK’s leading role in the science and applications of data.


This is a turbulent period politically, even culturally. But it is important to remember that the UK has been at the forefront of science for several centuries. Maintaining this position will be challenging, and my hope is that with the right attitude and considered decisions, we will continue to lead, to excel, and to be the destination of choice for some of the best scientific talent around the world.

This article is derived from Professor Ramakrishnan’s speech at the Royal Society for members of Trinity College on 22 February 2017.

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