Impact scepticism

Bad news for unpopular agenda as David Willetts calls for scientific literacy, not ‘utilitarian calculation’. Paul Jump reports

May 18, 2010

The economic value of public investment in science is best demonstrated by the ability of a scientifically literate country to capitalise on advancements made around the world, according to the minister for science and universities.

Speaking to an audience of science journalists at the Science Media Centre in London today, David Willetts reiterated his scepticism about proposals to measure the social and economic impact of research in the forthcoming research excellence framework.

“Scientific activity can’t be reduced to a utilitarian calculation or an economic balance sheet,” he said.

But he added that the discipline would not be exempt from public-sector cuts and said it would be necessary to economically justify state investment in science.

He said that as a layman, he was most persuaded by the argument that an economy and society with high levels of scientific understanding had a greater “absorptive capacity”.

“It means that if you have that critical mass in your own society’s in-house capacity to understand, you have a greater ability to benefit from scientific advances happening around the world,” he explained.

Mr Willetts was complimentary of the previous government’s efforts to boost science and said he did not intend to approach his brief in a “partisan spirit”.

He said he would call upon the expertise of the former Labour science minister Lord Sainsbury and Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP and Commons Science and Technology Committee stalwart, who lost his seat in the general election.

He also expressed support for the appointment of a chief scientific adviser to the Treasury, but said now “might not be the most tactful moment” to push for it.

Mr Willetts said he approved of incorporating principles on respecting scientific advice into the Ministerial Code, but was wary about this being seen as “a treaty between two warring tribes”.

He added that his aides were still trying to determine whether the decision to suspend all spending announced this year by the previous government would affect funding for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation in Central London.

• For an interview with David Willetts, see Times Higher Education, 20 May.

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