IN the aftermath of the deepest public spending cuts since the 1940s, ‘cautious relief’ was the media’s description of the mood in laboratories, research facilities and science parks across the country last week.
The science and technology industry made a strong case for funding to be protected, the Government listened and now it is up to the nation’s innovators to uphold their side of the bargain.
With the £4.6 billion spent on scientific research each year by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills being ring-fenced, the coalition leaders gave their clearest indication yet that they see science as central to the nation’s recovery and future competitiveness.
Science spending will remain frozen at the same level for the next four years, while it is hoped that the negative impact of inflation will be offset by ongoing improvements in efficiency.
But this is no time for complacency or celebration among regional and national players in the science and technology sector and now is a critical point in our history.
Back in the 1990s, Durham County Council recognised that its economic future would be driven by the knowledge economy.
The development of NETPark in Sedgefield brought this vision to life and today we are well on the way to achieving our aim of a giving the North East world-class facilities and a global reputation in research and development.
However, buoyed by the Government’s recent show of support, we must now continue to ensure the economic potential shown in science parks both here and nationally is realised and underpinned by a first-rate supply chain and education system which is the envy of the world.
Private sector players must continue to work closely with schools and universities to inspire the country’s top young academics into a career in science.
Scientists must also play their part in persuading graduates not to leave our shores for foreign markets such as in Germany and the US.
Meanwhile, long-term support from private investors and venture capitalists will be key in commercialising new ideas and replenishing the economy .
Some questions remain unanswered, such as how the 40% reduction in support for university teaching will impact on the science industry and whether cuts in transport spending will see Hitachi’s planned express train factory destined for Newton Aycliffe shelved.
Stewart Watkins is the managing director of the County Durham Development Company.