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July 30, 2010

Chemical engineers back physicists in row with Royal Academy of Engineering

The Institution of Chemical Engineers has come down on the side of physicists in the row between the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Physics ahead of October’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

The RAEng wrote to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills earlier this month calling on the government to reconsider its support for fundamental research, and of particle physics in particular, in favour of science that could provide more short-term economic returns.

In a letter sent today to Research Fortnight, signed jointly by David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, the government is urged to continue backing basic research.

The text of the letter is as follows:


The UK’s future will not be helped by a ‘battle’ for funds between basic research and engineering application: they need each other.

The UK has a science base, which among advanced economies is second only to the US in overall quality. In cost-effectiveness it is second to none. However, principally because of poor financial structures and the lack of a good enabling environment, the UK has long been less effective in translating the excellence of its science base into commercially successful innovation.

In difficult economic times, our objective should be to ensure that the UK has translational capabilities, engineering capacity and innovation infrastructure commensurate with the quality of the science base. The combination of the two is vital to economic recovery, a fact recognised by those countries, which have responded to the downturn by investing more, not less, in science, engineering and innovation.  

Within the total funding available, the quality of the science base needs to be sustained and the mechanisms of innovation honed to a higher degree of effectiveness. We recognise that in the current economic background there needs to be a strong focus on value for money in all government expenditure, but this must recognise the synergy between basic science and the translation or innovation capability. There does need to be an emphasis on application (which emphatically does not necessarily mean just short-term application) as a reflection of economic need, but not at the expenses of undermining the science base.

The level of resource for the Research Councils is one part of the much wider field of Government support for innovation (which includes innovative procurement, research and innovation in health, defence and elsewhere). Government should ensure it is complemented with mechanisms to encourage translation and exploitation of R&D findings. Equally, the science and engineering communities must continue to strengthen and deepen the close and collaborative relationship between them – to which we in the professional organisations are fully committed - to support recovery and to derive economic, social and sustainability benefits from UK science.


David Brown, Chief Executive, Institution of Chemical Engineers and Chairman, Engineering UK Professional Panel (comprising the professional engineering institutions)

Robert Kirby-Harris, Chief Executive, The Institute of Physics and Trustee, The Science Council (comprising the professional scientific charities)


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