Physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox is an ambassador for UK science and a passionate supporter of innovative business. He argues for greater collaboration between industry and education and says government backing for R&D could see the UK seize a global lead that is already within its grasp
Professor Brian Cox leaves the stage to uproarious applause. He has just spent an hour taking the audience of entrepreneurs on a mind-stretching trip around the fringes of human knowledge – from the quest to create a 3D map of nearby galaxies, to the engineering behind the hunt for the Higgs boson elementary particle, to the search for alien life. Set up by software company Clearvision, the talk highlighted the leaps in knowledge that can be made when organisations collaborate.
Judging by the thunderous reception – and the fuzz of existential wonder left in the brains of his listeners – the presentation was a success. But, backstage with the professor, we’re swiftly brought down to earth as he plonks a cup of tea on the table, grabs a biscuit and says: “I talk about space a lot to students, and then I say, ‘Do you want to build spaceships?’
They’ll say, ‘Yeah! But can we?’ and I’ll say, “Yes you can, it’s actually one of our big growth industries here in the UK, we’re brilliant at it.”
He cites Airbus Defence and Space UK (formerly Astrium), which – with sites in Newport, Portsmouth and Stevenage – continues to play a crucial role in the construction of spacecraft from groundbreaking satellites to Mars rovers.
The ideas may be mind-bending, but the commercial possibilities are very real, and of particular interest to Cox: “I have a position as professor for public engagement in science at the Royal Society, and part of that job is to make sure ministers remain aware that the knowledge economy is where the growth comes from,” he says.
The government’s own figures back up his point, confirming that, in the eight years up to the start of the last recession, 32 per cent of productivity growth in the UK economy came from changes in technology resulting from science and innovation. Yet the UK invests 1.8 per cent of GDP into scientific research, compared to the US’s 2.7 per cent, Germany’s 2.8 per cent and South Korea’s four per cent.
“Our problem is serial underinvestment relative to our competitors,” he continues. “You look at Germany – the investment in the knowledge economy, in R&D, is rising well ahead of inflation. There’s a well-known incorrect argument that government investment crowds out private sector investment.
“That’s been shown to be completely wrong – it crowds in. The more the government invests, the more the private sector invests – because you’ve got investment in the support structures which companies can then take advantage of.”
Cox has spoken before about Britain’s surrendered lead in nuclear power (“Twenty years ago, we were world leading. And now we can’t build them… we have to get French and Chinese companies to do it”), and it’s a fate he fears could befall another sector:
“Aerospace is key. You get one of the biggest returns on R&D investment from aerospace. The research goes all the way back to the Apollo programme in the US – it never got more than four per cent of federal budget, but by 1980 it had a return of 14 to one.
“The average age of the engineers in mission control when Apollo XI landed on the moon was under 30 – and there were 400,000 of them at Nasa – it’s not surprising they then all wandered off to work at companies like GE and Boeing.
“So it’s a problem if your aerospace subsidy is essentially defence spending and you cut defence spending. That’s fine as a policy decision, but you might want to replace it with something else.
“One of my great heroes, [the astrophysicist] Carl Sagan, said that if you spent aerospace investment on going to Mars rather than on building aircraft carriers, you’d still get the same investment return and it would be nicer, too.
“It’s somewhat idealistic, but his point is you’ve got to replace it with something – you need investment from government in very hi-tech, cutting-edge industries, whether it’s direct investment or contracts to make things. If you don’t want to make fighter aircraft, you’d better make spaceships!”
The global desire to invest in the UK’s innovation is tangible, says Cox – as he discovered first hand when joining David Cameron to meet Chinese business leaders and politicians during the visit by President Xi Jinping last October.
“I asked the question, ‘What is it in particular that China is interested in investing in?’ And the answer is creativity. They understand that there’s this vast creative potential that comes from hundreds of years of actually inventing industrialisation, and it’s still there.
“My university, the University of Manchester, grew out of Umist [the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology] and technical colleges trying to provide skilled people for the textiles industry. You can’t build that, if China could build that on their own they’d just do it. They can’t, so they need to invest in places like that where there’s growth potential.”
Indeed, Cox believes greater appreciation of the global demand for UK innovation could boost the fortunes of many British companies. When the government launched its Exporting is GREAT campaign in November to encourage more UK businesses to seek opportunities overseas, Cox appeared in the TV ad, saying: “Right now at Cern they’re looking for cutting-edge advanced engineering companies… the planet needs the UK’s expertise.”
At Geneva-based research organisation Cern, where Cox works with the Large Hadron Collider – the particle accelerator and largest single machine in the world, built through the collaboration of more than 100 countries – he says there are opportunities to be grasped: “We don’t play as big a role as we could – the enormous refrigeration system was built by a French company, the superconducting magnets were built in Russia…”
To meet the demand though, he argues, the UK needs to enhance its skills base, and this is where collaboration between industry and education is key: “In November I went to open the new STEM Centre at Middlesbrough College. It’s an object lesson in what industry can do and what government needs to support better.
“The point was made that one of the great advantages Teesside has had over the last 100 years is its ability to shift quickly. When shipbuilding went into decline it had steel, and then that declined so hi-tech manufacturing of offshore components became very important.
“So, in a genuine collaboration, industry has worked with the further education college to build real facilities – for example, an oil well. It has real industrial components because that’s what industry said they wanted the students, apprentices and engineers [to be trained on]. If two different companies requested two different things, they’ve got both there – it’s something you would never have achieved without that kind of collaboration…
“What I was very impressed with is that it’s working because industry is being almost brutally clear about what they want and the instructors, the teachers, are all ex-industry people.”
Indeed, he argues, it is this fleet-footed adaptability that marks the UK out from its global competition: “One of the industrialists gave quite a controversial speech saying that, while everyone is angry and upset about the steel closures, Britain has never competed on anything that becomes volume manufacturing – it competes on the cutting edge,” he says.
“The positive is we always have been, and still are, arguably, the best at being very reactive, very fast, and having a highly skilled workforce that can be deployed… Britain has always existed on the edge of what is possible. It has always managed to commercialise the most up-to-date technology – the first railway for example… but we don’t get stuck, we shift. As soon as somebody seems able to do something better, we move on to something else.”
From play to profit
A spectacular example of the British knack for finding ‘something else’ came with the discovery of graphene – a material 100 times stronger than steel – at the University of Manchester in 2004.
While the scientists who isolated it (Dutch-British physicist Andre Geim and Russian-British colleague Sir Konstantin Novoselov) received the Nobel Prize, a decade on it is finding lucrative markets in the semiconductor, electronics, battery and composites industries. Companies including Cleveland-based Advanced Graphene Materials and Consett-headquartered Thomas Swan are among those taking commercial advantage.
“I’m lecturing in Manchester tomorrow and I’ll walk past the National Graphene Institute,” says Cox. “It has been designed to put researchers next to industrial partners, and that’s surely the future. We are world leading in graphene and it’s a great example of how you can leverage great curiosity-led discovery.
“The Nobel Prize winners are still there, and they have always emphasised that they discovered it playing around on a Friday afternoon – they were not responding to an initiative to do things useful for the economy, they were playing around with an idea. That’s really important – once you’ve discovered something, then it becomes a question of: how can this be used for the benefit of the economy and society? And that’s when you invest in something like the National Graphene Institute.”
And so, given greater government investment in R&D and increased collaboration between industry and education, what does he think the UK knowledge economy could achieve?
“I think Britain can be the best place in the world to do science and engineering,” he says. “We’ve got the best foundations in the world, arguably the best university system in the world – only the US can compete with us. We’ve got some of the biggest and best hi-tech companies in the world, and again it’s probably only the US competing with us at that level.
“That we invest less than every single one of our competitors in R&D is either a cause for sadness or for optimism. Because what you can say is we actually are by far the most productive in this area, as the investment levels are way lower – Germany’s ramping it up, the US is ramping it up, China and India are ramping it up – and yet we still come out on many metrics as the best producer of knowledge and have some of the most competitive hi-tech companies in the world. It tells you there’s this headroom, a vast amount of capacity sat waiting.
“One of the reasons the government ultimately did ringfence science and protect it against inflation in the last spending review was because it was pointed out that we have world-leading facilities, such as the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire [the facility used by industrial and academic researchers across disciplines including structural biology, energy, engineering, nanoscience and environmental sciences] running below capacity…
“We’ve got all these things with loads of slack in them, and that’s a recipe for growth. Get a bit more investment in, both private and public, and you have the capacity to grow based on that foundation, so I’m very optimistic about the future.”
And with that, he finishes his tea and heads outside to discuss out-of-this-world ideas with a patiently waiting band of entrepreneur fans.
Director talked to Professor Brian Cox at the Clearvision event The Future of Team Collaboration. For more information visit clearvision-cm.com
To see three Ted talks from Professor Brian Cox, visit
CV: Professor Brian Cox OBE
Born 1968, Oldham
Current roles Advanced fellow of particle physics, Manchester University; professor for public engagement in science, The Royal Society
Media work Presenter of acclaimed BBC factual series, including Stargazing Live, Wonders of the Universe, Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of Life and Human Universe, as well as BBC2 panel show Six Degrees of Separation and Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. Author of books including Why Does E=mc²? and The Quantum Universe. From September 2016, Cox will be taking his scientific insights around the country for stage show Professor Brian Cox Live.
Did you know He was a keyboard player for the rock band Dare in the 1980s and later joined D:Ream, achieving a UK number-one hit with the single Things Can Only Get Better in 1994