Blair and Brown in science tug-of-war

April 1, 2005

Science has become caught up in a political tug-of-war between Tony Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, placing a question mark over the future of research policy in Government, The Times Higher can reveal.

Unveiling his ten-year investment framework for science last July, Mr Brown set out the largest sustained increase in science spending for a generation.

But Westminster insiders now say that it is an open secret that Mr Blair wants to regain control of the science agenda - an area of government policy widely seen as a success.

Senior research council sources have told The Times Higher that Mr Brown was set to announce the latest spending review allocations for the councils in the days leading up to his Budget speech on March 16.

But just over a week before, council chief executives were asked to prepare a last-minute overview of their research because the Prime Minister intended to announce the allocations early.

Sure enough, Mr Blair appeared in a lab coat at Imperial College London when Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt set out the allocations on March 7. The Chancellor was not present.

But while Mr Brown may have lost this public relations battle, he shows no signs of abandoning the science agenda he and his team have worked on for months.

When he was constructing his ten-year plan he invited the great and the good of science to breakfast to advise him. Two weeks ago, the Treasury quietly hosted a similarly high-level science breakfast meeting.

One Manchester University academic remarked: "Every time I turn around someone from the Treasury has come to visit us."

Richard Joyner, chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, agreed there was no doubt that the Chancellor was taking an unprecedented interest in science.

Some scientists hope this might herald a lighter touch on research selectivity, a concept embraced by No 10 but over which Mr Brown has been a little more circumspect. "Instinctively one would hope that since Brown is more egalitarian generally he might be more open on this," Professor Joyner said.

But a love affair with the Treasury does not come without strings. "There is definitely more central control over science and there are worries that the Treasury is starting to micromanage," Professor Joyner added.

While scientists are pleased that science has rocketed up the political agenda, many worry that the future of science in Government looks uncertain.

A senior scientist with close links to Westminster said: "The noise seems to be that the Office of Science and Technology will leave the Department of Trade and Industry and go to the Department for Education and Skills."

Ian Gibson, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, confirmed this. "I've heard rumours that they are going to split up the OST. They are not increasing staff numbers at a time when the science budget is increasing, which suggests they are planning to reorganise."

Westminster sources suggest that science is most likely to end up in the Cabinet Office or the DfES. There is some support for the former.

David Wallace, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University and vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "If the OST was in the Cabinet Office, I feel there would be a good chance of a holistic view of science right at the heart of Government."

But there is considerable opposition to science going to the DfES - the department responsible for recent cuts to science teaching funding and the widely dreaded research assessment exercise. Added to this, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has religious beliefs that conflict with areas such as stem-cell research.

Professor Wallace said: "Would the DfES be a good custodian of the science base? At best that is unproven."

Professor Joyner agreed. "We believe very firmly that the DfES has not understood the importance of science," he said.

Yet Peter Main, director of science and education at the Institute of Physics, argued that merging education and science might offer advantages.

He said: "One of the difficulties has been that the DTI and the DfES have problems talking to each other (about science). Some joined-up thinking would help, I think."

But Lord May of Oxford, the president of the Royal Society, warned: "It is not clear whether anything would be gained by moving the OST from its present location within the DTI."

He said: "The present location helps the OST to work closely with the DTI to stimulate business investment in research and development, which will be a major challenge for the UK over the next few years, while safeguarding the crucial budget for basic research."

The loss of the OST would have other knock-on implications.

Dr Gibson is aware that this could rob his select committee of its core mission -thus giving the Government an excuse to get rid of a committee renowned for stirring up trouble.

Dr Gibson said: "We don't have any control over it, that's the problem. But if the committee were split up it would be a disaster for British science."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

 

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