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Experts including Brian Cox call for 4G cash to boost UK technology

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Leading scientists including Professor Brian Cox and The Guardian columnist and author Ben Goldacre have backed a campaign calling on the government to reinvest the expected £4 billion windfall from the 4G mobile auction in UK science and technology.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) and Nesta, the UK's innovation foundation, are pioneering the '4Growth' campaign, urging ministers to use the 4G money to fund "technologies vital to the UK's future".

The iPad Mini

© PA Images / Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Professor Brian Cox presenting Stargazing

© BBC



Alongside Cox and Goldacre, the campaign is also backed by former Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees; former chief secretary to the Treasury and science minister, Lord Waldegrave; and Nobel laureate Andre Geim.

Later in the year, media regulator Ofcom will start an auction of the largest amount of spectrum ever sold off in the UK - 80% more than the multi-billion pound 3G auction in 2000.

Mobile companies including O2 and Vodafone will bid for the 800Mhz spectrum freed up following the digital television switchover and the 2.6GHz frequency.

This will then be used to deliver 4G services to consumers, capable of supporting mobile speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G on mobile devices. It is expected that the first 4G networks secured via the auction will go live in Spring 2013.

The spectrum sell-off will swell the government's coffers to the tune of an estimated £4bn, and 4Growth wants this money to be reinvested in science, technology and innovation to drive future economic growth.

The campaign says that £1.5 billion from the proceeds should go to building the UK's knowledge infrastructure to make it "fit for the 21st century", including technology demonstrators and new research and production facilities.

4Growth says that a further £1.25bn should be injected in emerging technologies and go towards helping small businesses come up with "innovative solutions for government contracts".

This should include, according to 4Growth, the set up of challenge prizes such as the $10m Ansari 'X' Prize, and the establishment of a Vision Fund for technological research.

Around £750m should go to a 10-year fund for investing in education and research to create more skilled scientists, engineers, researchers and designers.

A further £500m would then be used to finance business innovation. On this latter point, 4Growth said: "Since 2008, investment in innovation by businesses has fallen sharply, creating a 'valley of death' between research and commercialisation.

"Investment in innovation can be stimulated through the extension of Smart Awards and the backing of early-stage tech businesses through co-investment funds."

Geoff Mulgan, the Nesta chief executive, said that even though there are "many worthy current claims" for 4G funding, the case for reinvesting it in new technology, science and innovation was "compelling".

"Whenever we use a smartphone, we're standing on the shoulders of generations of innovators, from Marconi and Clerk Maxwell to Tim Berners Lee and Joe McGeehan who benefitted from funding, much of it public, that was animated by commitment to the future," he said.

"How the 4G proceeds are used will test whether the UK's horizons have shrunk, or whether we can be as ambitious today in our commitment to the future."

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that the 4G auction is the "perfect opportunity" for the government to move further towards rebalancing the economy.

"By reinvesting this money which came from science and technology back into innovation, the UK could put itself firmly on the road to a high-tech future," he said.

"Innovative economies - like Germany, or the US - owe their successes to a proactive government working closely with industry. That's how technologies like the internet and MP3s were born. We need to emulate that approach here, and the 4G auction gives us the opportunity to do it."

4Growth claims that it has support from the business sector. A recent Nesta survey, conducted by YouGov, showed that 40% of business leaders felt the 4G auction proceeds should be spent on 'Investment in science, technology and education', instead of paying back national debt or cutting taxes.

In a recent article in The Sunday Times, Sir James Dyson gave his backing for the 4G proceeds to be re-invested in the future of technology.

"60 years ago we were at the forefront of invention, but it took a war to spur us on. Now the young technology companies could transform our economy," he wrote.

"I'm not thinking of the next Facebook but tangible technologies that we can export, such as low-carbon power generation, nanotechnology and biotechnology.

"Is it unreasonable to suggest this money be spent on anything other than paying down the £163 billion deficit? No.

"If the coalition is serious about economic recovery, it should be bold and invest it in something that will really have an impact - let the money multiply."

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