A few months ago, I initiated a debate about focusing science and innovation funding on areas where the UK has clear competitive advantage, anticipates major growth potential over the next 20 years, and has the chance of ranking among the very best in the world.

My purpose is not to undermine the principles that have made UK science world-class: sustained and broad-based investment; an insistence on excellence; support for blue-skies research and the independence of the Research Councils. It is about extracting maximum value from the talent within our science base to achieve long-term economic success and tackle some of the most urgent problems we face, like climate change and ageing populations.

Without pre-empting the outcome of ongoing discussions among academics, business leaders and ministers, it is clear that materials science has a strong case for ongoing investment.

It underpins a wide range of industries which rely on a fundamental understanding of the structure, properties and performance of existing materials and the development of new ones to drive technology forwards. Indeed, UK businesses that produce and process materials have an annual turnover around £200 billion, accounting for 15 per cent of GDP.

The UK is already recognised internationally for the quality of its researchers and facilities. The National Physical Laboratory, for example, is a global leader in materials metrology, and together with Cranfield University, it is a founding member of the new European Institute of Piezoelectric Materials and Devices.

And in the ISIS neutron source at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, we have an outstanding facility allowing scientists to pursue both fundamental research and applied projects dedicated to such issues as optical communication, environmental contamination and biocompatible materials for drug development.

Only by understanding materials – by probing deeper into their structures and functions – can we unlock their further potential to help address existing problems and develop new technologies. That is why we have invested nearly £145m in the ISIS Second Target Station to explore soft matter and provide an additional tool for biologists and medical researchers.

At the same time, materials are vital to meeting our future energy needs in an environmentally responsible way. Energy generation, conservation, storage and security of supply will continue to be major drivers for materials technology.

But this is a competitive field, in terms of both research and commercial execution. In the last year alone, both the US and Japan have switched on their own billion-dollar neutron sources.

For that reason, continued investment in our research base must be matched by a healthy supply of scientists and engineers. There could be as many as 2.9 million jobs related to science, technology, engineering and maths by 2017, yet we will only have the candidates to fill them through concerted efforts – including from the academic and business communities – to attract young people.

No industry or discipline is immune to the difficulties thrown up by the current downturn, nor to the inevitable competition for leadership in global markets once the upswing arrives. Yet given its centrality to an advanced, interdisciplinary research base, as well as its own intrinsic value, I predict a bright future for materials science.