Battle's belief in science

June 13, 1997

IF the science world was concerned about the appointment of a non-specialist as minister for science, energy and industry, then it can draw some solace from the "meet John Battle" drinks arranged for the media last week.

Margaret Beckett, president of the Board of Trade and head of the Department of Trade and Industry, signalled her intent to be involved in science as she accompanied a beaming and eager Mr Battle who, despite arriving from Azerbaijan that morning, was, we were told, at his desk by 9am.

Mrs Beckett, hurrying between evening votes in the House, stressed that she was taking seriously her "special responsibility" for science. She vowed her approach would be different from that of her predecessor Ian Lang, with the political pitfalls surrounding the future of the two Royal Observatories among the first of the science issues requiring her attention.

As for Mr Battle, there seems little that can dampen his enthusiasm, including repeated questioning about his religious beliefs. Did he not vote with David Alton on abortion? Surely his views present problems for a science minister, he was repeatedly asked. But Mr Battle is adamant. He sees few difficulties combining scientific decision-making and being a practising Roman Catholic.

He is already reviewing science and scientific coordination across the ministries, and the role of the Government's chief scientific adviser, though he adds that Sir Bob May will not be moved to a "limbo position in a broom cupboard halfway between the Cabinet Office and Downing Street". The minister says he is planning to have the review on Mrs Beckett's desk soon.

Like many of his Labour colleagues, Mr Battle admits to finding Whitehall rather bewildering. He says he cannot quite get used to referring to people by official titles. And his whiteboard is causing some confusion. Asked why he needed one, he replied that it was to write down "key words and equations", and was surprised to be told by a civil servant "but minister, we are your whiteboard".

Tony Blair is taking science seriously, says Mr Battle, despite the paucity of announcements. Will Dearing suggest moving the research councils? We must wait and see, he says. Then someone mentions science shops and his face lights up. "Now that's something I haven't been thinking about," he muses.

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