There’s always been a healthy rivalry between Cheltenham and our near neighbours, Gloucester. Make no bones about it; the city has done well in the last few years. Thanks to the vision and hard work of their local MP Richard Graham and the City Council, Gloucester is on a massive regeneration journey.
But despite their success in attracting investment, there are areas where Cheltenham has a clear edge. Look no further than The Times Science Festival which is in full swing. It is internationally acclaimed and attracts brilliant brains to Cheltenham like a superconducting electromagnet. The free Discover and Explore Zones are a huge hit with children, and Famelab has unearthed some great scientific communicators, able to inspire across the generations.
It’s never been more important to foster scientific excellent in the UK. If we are to succeed in the global race and provide employment for future generations, we need to make ours among the most dynamic, innovative and technologically advanced economies in the world.
So, how does the UK rank in global league tables for science and innovation? Remarkably well. According to the Global Innovation Index, the UK comes third worldwide for innovation capabilities and results. We rank first in the OECD for the proportion of R&D funded from abroad. There are some everyday reminders of British leadership in science. Take vehicle technology, for example. In Formula 1 (a passion of mine) eight of the eleven teams competing at the pinnacle of motoring technology are based in the UK. In the world of software, Silicon Roundabout in London is steadily establishing itself as a rival to Silicon Valley in California.
Closer to home, I have visited some hi-tech companies here in Gloucestershire such as Messier-Dowty (aircraft landing gear) and Trio Motion (motion control technology). Both are out-and-out world beaters. We should be very proud of them.
Education is key to driving this further. Exam board figures show a steep rise in the number of students of both sexes taking AS level physics, up from 36,258 in 2006 to 61,176 last year. But the figures show that physics loses more students than most other subjects after AS level. Girls are far more likely than boys to drop the subject, despite, on average, achieving a quarter grade higher. By A2, the second year of A level, only a fifth of physics students are female. Addressing that is essential.
I also think we can do more locally in Cheltenham. I’m not suggesting we build a Large Hadron Collider around the outskirts of the town. Mind you, smashing together particles at extreme speeds under the council offices is occasionally tempting.
But I believe we can build further on the natural assets that we have. In the science field alone Cheltenham has GCHQ, as well as Science Festival. I believe we need to start thinking about the viability of a well-developed science/ICT hub, where we can use this unique expertise on our doorstep to nurture local businesses. Now that would get them talking in Gloucester.