Caution could stifle scientific entrepreneurs

January 15, 1999

Considerable schadenfreude may have surrounded the resignation of former trade and industry secretary Peter Mandelson, but not among the scientific and spin off company community. His departure, and the understandable but unsettling silence of his successor, Stephen Byers, are causing anxiety.

Mr Mandelson's direct line to the prime minister, coupled with his energy and his liking for getting things done, had produced a rare spring in the step of science's movers and shakers. Margaret Beckett had secured the money, Mr Mandelson was into spending it. He showed every sign of enjoying the science and technology part of his brief and the company of scientists and scientific entrepreneurs.

Mr Mandelson's presence provided the political clout needed to enable businessman-turned-politician Lord Sainsbury to pursue his more scholarly approach to the science portfolio, an approach that has been going down well with those he has been meeting. With a less interested secretary of state, if that is what Mr Byers turns out to be, Lord Sainsbury's position in the Lords may become a disadvantage, making it hard to keep science at the top of the agenda.

Mr Byers is a skilful, agreeable and approachable politician. His background is in law and local government. He held the schools standards brief for a short while at the Department for Education. He was for a time an academic, but his experience was not in research universities.

Furthermore, he comes to the DTI from the Treasury, with its marked dislike for anyone spending money.

Mr Byers inherits the competitiveness white paper published only a couple of weeks before Mr Mandelson's departure. The document itself was thin, scarcely meriting the label white paper, which used to be for the announcement of major policy prosposals expected to lead to legislation. It was largely a round-up of initiatives already announced - Pounds 50 million for the Higher Education Reach Out fund; Faraday Partnerships to build networks between businesses and universities; expansion of the Teaching Company Scheme; a second round of Foresight Link awards. All this is welcome, but it will not amount to much unless it is driven forward with political enthusiasm.

The white paper was, in effect, a manifesto for Mr Mandelson's crusade to commercialise research findings, or, as he put it at the time, to release the many "bangs locked up in our science base, locked up in labs, just waiting to be liberated".

The risk that momentum will be lost is sharpened by the simultaneous departure of other key people. The director general of the research councils is new to the post. Barbara Roche, who was making a big success of the small-firms portfolio and was charged with steering through proposed legislation to facilitate internet trading (e-commerce), has moved to the Treasury as financial secretary. This is promotion for her, but could be a serious loss for small high-tech firms.

We may or may not be heading into a recession. What no one seems to doubt is that growth in the economy will be low. This is the point in the economic cycle when governments can make a real difference by ensuring that new initiatives get off the ground. There are ambitious targets for science parks and spin-off companies. Such initiatives all too easily get bogged down in bureaucracy. People can become so careful to avoid mistakes that they kill enterprise with meetings, form-filling and audits.

Mr Mandelson's fault has been lack of caution, a willingness to take risks.

While that may have been unfortunate for him and for the government, it was a great help to scientific entrepreneurs. An opportunity will be lost if caution once again prevails. Mr Byers' self-imposed silence itself smacks of caution. He should end it soon.

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