Good...but still short of a joined-up science policy

July 28, 2000

Like last week's spending review, this week's science white paper, Excellence and Opportunity, builds on a position that is already enviable by world standards. The UK is disproportionately good at science. The issues are how to improve and how to turn good research into economic activity.

Its most newsworthy feature is funding to create a small supergroup of academic worldbeaters, paid six-figure salaries and expected to transform their disciplines.

In recent years a disproportionate number of such high-flyers have been tempted to the United States. Paying well will not on its own lure them to Britain. They also want good facilities and good colleagues. Announcements on infrastructure spending will cure some worries about equipment, and enhanced research student stipends will mean that people at the start of their research careers are less exploited than before.

But the problem of low pay in academic life for everyone short of superstar status remains. And the sight of the six-figure 50 is bound to fuel resentment. In any case, the "great man" (or occasionally woman) model of science is outdated. Most science is a team activity, not a solo sport for stars assisted by spear-carriers. Less contentious are the white paper's measures designed to help commercialise university and public-sector science. British industry's lack of interest in innovation is familiar - and borne out by its poor patenting record (page 30). Anything that helps academics build their own companies or work with people who can help them do so is welcome, even if there is little new money. But the government is still unclear about what it wants British science to achieve. It rejects the idea of "picking winners" but still wants to choose areas of focus for funding. It regards public understanding of science as a matter of building support for innovation, not facing up to public concerns, despite much research showing this approach is flawed. And the UK still does not have a joined-up science policy: government departments can still spend money on research as they wish and tell the Office of Science and Technology about it later.

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