Analysis: Science comes in from cold

June 15, 2001

Research has grown in stature: ministers are giving it more cash and inviting it into the political fold. Caroline Davis reports.

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, there was a huge public outcry. Queen Victoria, prime minister Lord Palmerston and US president James Buchanan kept a cool distance. Last year's publication of the first draft of the human genome aroused similar public excitement. But at this launch, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton linked by satellite to jointly congratulate the scientists responsible.

Science has been moving up the political agenda, pushed by public issues such as genetic engineering and food safety and pulled by an economic shift towards exploiting scientific research.

Under the last government, by all accounts, science did well. Among all the causes clamouring for extra funding, science received the largest increase in budget.

Although the change in approach seemed to coincide with the election of Tony Blair, was new Labour really really responsible or has there been a cultural shift in the machinery of government?

Over the 1980s, the science budget had steadily decreased. The early 1990s saw a Treasury moratorium on infrastructure spending. In 1998, Labour increased science spending by £1.4 billion, a 15 per cent increase over three years. It also sanctioned a 23 per cent increase in PhD stipends, taking them to £9,000 by 2003, the first real-terms increase in decades.

There are many new schemes and funds to encourage knowledge transfer between universities and industry. The Department of Trade and Industry joined with biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust to inject £1.75 billion into a crumbling science infrastructure in the Joint Infrastructure Fund and the Science Research Investment Fund. And in a few weeks, the first researchers to benefit from a £40 million fund to foster "superstar" scientists to work in the UK will be announced.

Despite these policies, Conservative science spokesman Richard Page said:

"I don't get any indication that Labour has an ideological commitment to science. Labour has inherited the golden legacy." He said that cuts to the science budget in the early 1990s were due to national economic problems that had now been overcome and that a Conservative government would have maintained Labour's "impressive" science budget.

However, former shadow environment spokesman John Redwood told a meeting of the lobby group Save British Science a couple of years ago that his party made an economic "mistake" in cutting the science budget.

Science was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto. Before the election, Mr Page said science funding under a Conservative government would be managed by the universities under the Tory endowment policy.

Lord Sainsbury has proved himself an asset to the Labour government in his role as science minister. He is seen to have a strong interest in science and a dedication to being science minister, a position predecessors may have seen as a stepping stone. Despite speculation from some, such as Sean Monro of the interest group Scientists for Labour, that Lord Sainsbury would step down, he will stay on in his position in the new government.

The new chief scientific officer, David King, has gained respect quickly in the way he has dealt with the foot-and-mouth crisis. The speed with which external academic scientific advice was sought showed a marked change in approach from a reliance on in-house scientific expertise during the BSE crisis. The chief scientific adviser and a team of epidemiologists fielded by the new Food Standards Agency took over from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the chief veterinary officer in managing the crisis within a month of the first confirmed cases. The ministry itself has now been culled, replaced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Moves to shift scientific advice out of government were kicked off in 1999 with the creation of the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission, the FSA and the Human Genetics Commission. In a bid to increase transparency and gain public confidence, these organisations are staffed by independent scientists. Representatives from industry and consumer groups broaden their scope to include ethical and social issues.

Mike Dexter, director of the Wellcome Trust, believes the gains science has seen have been due to the people involved rather than politics. "They saw the benefits of science, in the past and in the long term, and emphasised the importance of a strong science base for wealth generation. Sometimes, the benefits are pretty intangible," he said.

"It was only when the government was elected (in 1997) and it was showing at least a commitment to science that we got in contact about the possibility of forming the Jif partnership," he recalled, describing many years of "gross underinvestment" in the university system. He said negotiations with the Treasury were "a baptism of fire", but the trust collaborated again on the £1 billion Srif fund after Jif was oversubscribed, able to support only one in five bids. Since then, he has reminded the government that Wellcome will not be responsible for paying the running costs. "It is safe to say the trust feels it has done its bit in terms of infrastructure - £525 million is a lot of money in anyone's terms."

Former chief scientific adviser Sir Robert May said a change in attitude to science predates new Labour, originating in Labour's 1992 manifesto but carried out by a Conservative government. "William Waldegrave, then minister for public service, science and technology, brought about the change by creating the Office of Science and Technology and bringing the chief scientist into the civil service as a permanent secretary. This set the stage for elevating the role of the chief scientific adviser." The OST could then work on government policy by marshalling its arguments on the efficiency of UK science and its high citation rate.

Sir Robert says that the positive attitude to science goes to the heart of government, with Mr Blair one of its strongest advocates. Roy Anderson, professor of epidemiology at Imperial College, London, agrees. "Tony Blair in particular is conscious of taking scientific advice from a variety of sources. In the past, it would have been in-house. But now it comes from other sources - universities and industrial groups."

His was one of the five university departments the government called on to advise it during the foot-and-mouth crisis. He said he was fortunate that his department was able to drop everything and pour in sufficient manpower to work on the project.

He added that the government and the Royal Society were looking to create links with scientists who can be called on to provide advice. Most scientists would welcome such opportunities, he said. "University administrations are generally very tolerant. Scientists are pleased to contribute in the public or advisory domain."

Labour backbencher Ian Gibson, a member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee, says that at last the "lethargic Whitehall system" is listening to scientists. But he thinks that Parliament, with only a dozen scientifically literate MPs, still underestimates science.

"With foot-and-mouth, science has been shown still not to be at the centre of government. There has to be absolute political understanding that scientific knowledge allows political judgements and assessments. Science and politics have never really got together."

In contrast, the House of Lords has a growing scientific contingent, with Sir Robert May and Susan Greenfield recently named independent peers. Lord Winston is a staunch Labour supporter, as is astronomer royal Sir Martin Rees. In an unusual move for a scientist, Sir Martin spoke at last year's Labour conference.

Save British Science was set up in 1986 after funding cuts to university research. Director Peter Cotgreave said that rises in science funding since 1997 have meant the group is less combative and can focus on back-burner issues such as how governments get scientific advice.

But he has not yet done himself out of his job. "The prime minister and chancellor are both prepared to say that science is important, which makes it harder for them to ignore requests from scientists to speak to them," he said. "But we cannot take our eye off the ball. We will point out to the point of boredom that the UK simply does not invest enough in science."

In its 1997 election manifesto, Labour promised to strengthen the science base in universities and to create world-class centres of excellence. In March, a House of Commons science and technology committee's report concluded that UK science still suffers from low pay, under-representation of women and an over-emphasis on wealth creation that stifles blue-skies research.

New science policies for Labour's second term are few. The 2001 manifesto pledged to "continue to encourage the best scientists to work in the UK as well as making the most of our science base in universities". In a science press conference, Lord Sainsbury repeated the mantra that there is still more to do. Now Labour has a chance to do it.

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