Science Superpower


Looking at science as a global endeavour

Martin Rees

Lord Martin Rees OM FRS is an astrophysicist and cosmologist, and the UK's Astronomer Royal. He is based at the University of Cambridge where he has been Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Institute of Astronomy. He is a Fellow, and former Master, of Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2005, he was appointed to the House of Lords, and he was President of the Royal Society from 2005 to 2010.


  • Universities need to keep track of developments across the world
  • Value for money means attracting the top talent and maximising opportunities for big breakthroughs
  • Laboratories outside the main university system can provide long-term, full-time research
  • Technically-advanced countries like ours can help emerging economies to go straight to greener, sustainable solutions
  • A focus on such Grand Challenges can attract the best talent to engineering and science.

We are used to the idea that research is concentrated in universities.  This is a system which has prevailed in the US and the UK, but that is not the case everywhere.  Although the idea of the research university was invented by Humboldt in Germany, most of that nation's best researchers are now in Max Planck institutes.  The kinds of academic career that mix teaching and research are Anglo-Saxon models, although these have now also been widely adopted in the Far East. 

Research universities benefit the economy, partly through direct knowledge transfer to industry.  However, although work may be channelled towards a few priority challenges, academia should surely collectively cover the whole map of learning.  There are two reasons for this.  First, to optimise teaching: a very important output of universities is, of course, successful students.  The second reason is to maintain a watching brief over the whole world's research, so as to seize on new ideas and run with them.  More than 90% of those new ideas come from somewhere else in the world: it is important to be in touch with them. 

It is not possible to predict how or if a specific academic research project will pay off or deliver socio-economic benefit.  Yet success is more likely in a nurturing environment.  Confidence will drive creativity, innovation and risk-taking.  That is true in science, but in the arts and in entrepreneurial activity, too.  Researchers themselves have the best expertise and the strongest motive for judging which topics hold promise.  Their careers depend on making good choices.  The difference in payoff between the very best research and the merely good is manyfold. 

Value for money

Giving taxpayers enhanced value for money is not about saving a few percent through improving efficiency in the office management sense.  It means maximising the chance of big breakthroughs by attracting top talent and supporting them appropriately.  These are the people that research universities must attract and nurture.

A perennial tension for funding bodies concerns the support of people versus the support of specific projects.  The latter option is administratively tidier and allows the funder to demand quarterly reports of progress, keeping track of steps towards a declared target.  The approach is sadly becoming dominant. 

Yet history shows that it is often the really free inquiry which leads to the biggest advances.  In lively research groups, this is exhilarating.  Even in such a privileged environment, though, younger colleagues are ever more preoccupied with grant cuts, proposal writing and job security.  Prospects of breakthroughs will plummet if such concerns play unduly on the minds of even the best young researchers. 

It is not just in the UK, but also the EU and the US that bodies allocate public funding based on ever more detailed performance indicators to quantify the output.  This has the best of intentions, but it can impede best professional practice.  One reason why the UK has developed a special strength in biomedical sciences stems from the existence of laboratories that allow the full-time, long-term research that is harder and harder to do in universities.  The MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, the Crick Institute, the John Innes Centre and the Rothamsted Research Institute, for instance, may allow better environments.  There is a downside of course, as they reduce the time talented researchers spend in contact with students. 

If ‘science superpower’ is to be more than just a vacuous phrase, two things are certain.  Academia has to attract young people with talent who want to achieve something distinctive in their 30s.  We also need to promote percolation between sectors and disciplines: academia is far too rigid in its promotion criteria and facilitating people to enter or leave.

These research institutions must be complemented by organisations (in the public or private sector) which can offer adequate manufacturing capability.  Those connections certainly proved their worth in the recent pandemic.  It is also imperative that nations like the UK should foster expertise in energy, climate and cyber. 

Research is international and it would be good for the UK if there were more top-tier research universities in the rest of Europe, incentivising greater mobility and opportunity.  Collectively, that could offer a stronger counter attraction to North America and China as a destination for talent.  Sadly, this aspiration has had a serious setback due to Brexit. 

Grand Challenges

Looking at the priorities over the near future, the Government has a set of Grand Challenges, one of which is going to be dealing with climate change.  For this, real breakthroughs are needed in energy generation, storage and smart grids.  There is also a broader and especially compelling motivation for prioritising these efforts in countries like the UK and the US. 

Under business-as-usual scenarios, the main rise in annual CO2 emissions will come in the next 30 years, and from those countries in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa which cannot reach acceptable living standards without generating more power than they do today.  Their populations are growing and will reach four billion by mid-century.  So, flattening the trajectory of their emissions is crucial.  The Global South must be economically and technically enabled to leapfrog to clean energy, rather than building coal-fired power stations: much in the way as they have transitioned directly to smartphones, without ever building landlines. 

Technically advanced countries like the UK can catalyse a far greater reduction in global emissions by helping the developing world to leapfrog than we can just by achieving net zero ourselves (this country is responsible for less than 2% of global emissions).  Similar arguments apply to the challenge of providing the world's food without encroaching on the natural environment, and also of easing the blight of infectious diseases. 

Such would be my priorities for long-term Grand Challenges, because of the economic value and because it is hard to think of a more idealistic challenge for attracting young people into engineering than solving these great global problems.