Leader: Keep science in its safe haven

April 1, 2005

Chancellor Gordon Brown has been the most important person in British science since 1997. Some of his decisions have been controversial. But his willingness to put significant sums into research has been at least as important as the enthusiasm of other players such as Science Minister Lord Sainsbury and the Prime Minister.

The Government's spending plans for research mean that universities will still be feeling the benefit of Brown's new money a decade from now. The fact that Brown is squabbling with the Prime Minister over who takes credit for enhanced science spending bodes well for future budgets.

But the argument about which corner of the Government should be responsible is less welcome. Both of the proposals we report this week have been tried before and found wanting. Although its exact title varies, ministers in the Department for Education and Skills spend most of their time thinking about schools. There was little sign that they paid attention to science the last time they were responsible for it. And to have the same ministry overseeing the research councils and the Higher Education Funding Council for England gives one body too much power. In addition, the DFES has no responsibility for Scotland and Northern Ireland and very little for Wales.

Placing science in the Cabinet Office also worked badly last time it was tried, partly because it is not geared up to be a spending department.

Putting it back there would stress to other government departments that research is important. But the signs are that they have already got the message. The Liberal Democrat option of a science ministry has its adherents in Labour circles too. It would have a feel-good value, but there is no guarantee that the ministry would be as good as the Department of Trade and Industry at extracting cash from the Treasury.

The existing system delivers well for British research and no overwhelming reason has been produced for altering it. In particular, a wholesale reorganisation of the research councils should be avoided. They have succeeded under the gaze of several government departments and are the most distinctive and valuable feature of the UK research machine.

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